Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 • Matthew 22:15-22
I want to tell you a story.
Last week after worship had concluded and most of you had gone home, I was up in my study with Drew and Francisco and my phone rang. It was Libby, standing outside the front door with two of our neighbors here on the block who wanted to discuss a rumor they’d heard that the congregation was considering opening a warming center for homeless adults as part of our mission and outreach. Our neighbors were upset that the church might make a change in our programming that would have unintended negative consequences for their families and households.
We stood, representatives of St. Luke’s and representatives from the block, in front of the church for about twenty minutes in a discussion that was, at times, tense. For our part, we were trying to both assure our neighbors that we were not currently planning to house a warming center at St. Luke’s and to communicate that we remain committed to serving the needs of those in our community with the deepest and most desperate needs.
There’s more to this story. You could ask any member of the church council for details and they could give you some more background on where this story came from, but for the purpose of this morning’s discussion I want to focus on one element of what happened last Sunday: we were talking faith and politics.
Politics. It’s a funny word. It’s supposed to be what unites us, but so often it’s what divides us. The word politics comes from the same word we use in the church to talk about how we govern ourselves, polity. Politics, polity, policy, police all come from the same ancient concept of the polis, a Greek word that signifies both a city and the citizens therein. It is a word that describes the ways that the individual relates to the community. Alone we are people, together we are a polis. Alone we can do what we want, but together we need rules and then people to enforce them so that the rights of one are protected from the abuses of the many.
When neighbors disagree about what kinds of materials, resources and services belong in their community, they are talking politics, but politics isn’t just talk. Each week, twice a week, St. Luke’s and the other congregations that support Elijah’s Pantry feed hundreds of families. That is politics. We open our doors to people recovering from years of addictions that, sometimes, drove them to break the rules of our polis in acts of theft or violence. We provide a safe place for people to heal from the wounds of the past and the pains of the present. That is politics. Anytime we cast a vision for how human beings should be able to live with one another, support one another, and hold one another accountable, we are talking about politics.
Why then is it so difficult to talk about faith and politics?
The fact is, as I’ve just described, many times we talk about faith and politics without even knowing it. As our neighbors shared their concerns with us, we spoke explicitly about what it means for us, as Christians, to care for our neighbors – the ones with addresses and the ones without. Care of the neighbor is a Christian value and a faith practice with roots in Hebrew scripture and the teachings of Jesus. So, whenever we talk and whenever we act to serve the needs of our neighbor, we are living at the intersection of faith and politics.
The issue gets a little trickier when we begin to speak about what happens beyond our block, on the streets of downtown Chicago where protesters are demanding a new relationship between workers and wealth, or on the campaign trail where candidates for office share their views on how the nation should respond to the issue of undocumented immigrants. These are topics on which the bible has much to say as well, but how are we as a church equipped to bring the faith that is in us out of the confines of our sanctuaries and into the public conversation on the common good?
The scriptures assigned for this morning are full of politics. In the passage from Isaiah, the prophet declares that God has elected Cyrus, the king of Persia, to subdue nations and to strip kings of their robes. The Israelites had no trouble believing that God was concerned about politics, because they understood God to be concerned about people, and the two always go together.
Likewise, the faith and politics come up directly in Matthew’s gospel this morning, as the Pharisees try to entrap Jesus with questions about taxes, and whether or not it is lawful for people of faith to support the cause of government. Jesus avoids their trap with a command that forces them, and us, to acknowledge where our deepest loyalties lie, “give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
On this morning, though, I think it is the reading from First Thessalonians that has the most to say to us about faith and politics. In this letter Paul praises the church of Thessalonica not just for their faithfulness, but for the public witness they have made to their faith.
For the word of the LORD has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God. (1 Thess. 1:8-9)
It is because of their very public faith, their public proclamation, and their warm welcome of the stranger in their midst that Paul says to that church, “for we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that [God] has chosen you.” God has picked God’s candidate, and it’s you!
In his newest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer – a Quaker born here in Chicago who has spent his career teaching and writing on a variety of topics – writes this:
If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we – you and I – became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.
Why then is it so difficult to talk about faith and politics? It is fear. Fear that we will uncover differences between us that we don’t know how to bridge. Fear that we will alienate ourselves from each other. Fear that we will upset our neighbors, or be upset ourselves.
What is needed at this moment in the history of our people, of the church, of our society are people who can overcome the fear of conflict and tell the story of faith. The story of faith is the sharing of where we see God at work in the world, and in our lives, changing both. The story of faith is the public expression of confidence that, just as God chose Cyrus to transform the world, God is choosing us as well. We are God’s candidate.
Hearing the story of faith, knowing the story of faith, even trusting the story of faith, are one thing – sharing their story of faith is another. That’s why this morning and in the weeks to come we’re going to make some space inside our worship service for people to share their story of faith, to give their testimony, about how and where and when they’ve felt God at work in the world and in their lives. This morning it will be our sister Cynthia Stengel. In the weeks to come, it will be others.
We are doing this because giving our testimony, sharing our story, is what makes it possible for us to be a community. We have to speak and we have to listen. We have to know and to be known. This is exactly what was happening as our neighbors knocked on our doors with their concerns. They were sharing their stories, and we were sharing ours. Even with all its tensions and potential disagreements, inside that conversation was all the material needed for a new relationship to emerge. That’s faith and politics.
As we move through this six-week series on faith and politics we aren’t going to be telling you how to vote, or who to vote for (other than to suggest that, perhaps, the vote has already been cast … for you!) Instead we’re going to be about the work that Parker Palmer calls “healing the heart of democracy.” We’re going to imagine what it would mean for the church to be a place where people can practice being different without being divided. Where stories can be shared and heard and new paths forward can be discovered together.
My prayer is that we can let go, maybe just a little bit, maybe slowly, of the fear that makes it so difficult for us to talk to one another across the lines of difference and to really listen. If we can do it here, in the safety of our sanctuary, perhaps we will feel better equipped to do it out there, where the world is hungry for a new way of being community, a new politics.
Lord, let it be so. Amen.