It’s been six weeks now that we’ve been talking about God and politics, and I know from the varied questions and comments I’ve received that, for some of you, this has been a strong affirmation of your conviction that Christian faith calls each of us to be engaged in the world as we find it, politics and all. For some of you though, it has been uncomfortable for there to be so much attention given to secular affairs. Talk of politics in church can be dangerous, especially when one party or politician seems to be getting an unsolicited endorsement. Our hope, both Pastor Tim’s and mine, in planning and preaching throughout these six weeks is that what you would hear from us would not be a blanket endorsement of any candidate currently running for office – but that you would hear a strong endorsement of your own candidacy, as the ones God has called to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.
As citizens of the United States, we are fortunate to enjoy civil rights for which many in the world are still struggling. We benefit from a separation of church and state that protects citizens from the imposition of religious values or religious laws on the country. This separation is an important safeguard for religious minorities, including those who subscribe to no religion at all. The separation of church and state, however, is not a gag order that restricts people of faith from applying their religious values to the public square, as we have seen time and time again throughout the history of our nation, as people of faith led the way in one justice movement after another. If fact, many have argued that no significant movement for justice and equality in this country has taken hold without the support of religious communities.
So, as we conclude this series today, and prepare to turn our attention to the new year in the life of the church that begins next week with the season of Advent, I want to share a few final voices that are speaking into the gap between faith and public life.
The first is our own Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, an elected leader within the church who has served as the Presiding Bishop for the last eleven years, and who recently addressed the ELCA’s Church Council, also an elected body, for the first time since this past summer’s Churchwide Assembly in Orlando – a highly political gathering. In a speech highlighting the Church’s mission in society, Bishop Hanson stated that ELCA members are “called to be part of God’s reconciling and restoring community” in the world.
“That’s why no matter what political party is in power in the White House, Congress, state houses, legislatures or in local communities, we will first of all affirm the vocation of political service as being a calling from God,” he said, and therefore need to hold public servants accountable. In recent months ELCA members have held public servants responsible, “so that the balancing of budgets and the reducing of debts is not done on the backs of those who live in poverty. That’s why we advocate that there must be a circle of protection around those programs that historically have been untouched when deficits arise and budgets must be reduced. And why we believe it’s a moral issue. It’s a matter of faith.”
I believe this is what God’s politics looks like today. It’s not a matter of selecting from among the (narrow) range of candidates running for office, which one will most closely align themselves with our political leanings or self-interest. That kind of politics vests too much power in too few people in service of too small a percentage of the world’s population. That is, in the language we hear calling to us from the streets, the politics of the one percent.
No. God’s Politics, I believe, is each of us alone and all of us together acting boldly as what we say we are each time we come to the communion rail: the body of Christ, broken and sent for the sake of the world. When Bishop Hanson affirmed political office as a vocation, he was affirming not only the vocation of those who serve as elected officials, but also the calling each of us share to be engaged in the world on political terms as an act of stewardship. To be politically involved is to exercise the measure of power each of us has been given to care for the earth and for one another. Like the servant in last week’s parable, that power was not given to us to be hidden in the ground, but to be shared and multiplied.
Parker Palmer, whom I have quoted more than once over these last six weeks, and whose book Healing the Heart of Democracy I cannot recommend highly enough, speaks to this common calling to build, maintain and protect the common good like this:
Today, in my early seventies, I look at citizenship differently than I did when I was young. Time has stripped me of some of my more specialized roles, and soon enough I will be playing no role at all. Now I see a deeper truth about the meaning of citizenship: in cannot be reduced to the roles we play. Today my definition of citizenship is deep-seated and wide-reaching: Citizenship is a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials I could never provide for myself.
I see now that I have no choice – at least, no honorable choice – except to affirm, celebrate, and express my gratitude for that community in every aspect of my life, trying to be responsive to its needs whether or not my immediate self-interests are met. Whatever is in the common good is, in the long run, good for me and mine.
Both Bishop Hanson and Parker Palmer remind us that citizenship is not about the pursuit of one’s own self-interest, but the recognition that we are all in this together. This is the principle that the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed as he indicted the wealthy for their neglect of the poor, speaking for God and declaring,
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezekiel 34:15-22)
God’s Politics is not survival of the fittest. It is not rugged individualism. It is not bootstrap self-reliance. It is care for the weakest among us, regard for the despised, compassion for the sick and the suffering, and justice for the oppressed. None of these are private affairs. These are public actions flowing from publicly confessed beliefs. This is politics.
Today, the final Sunday of the church year, is known as “Christ the King,” or increasingly as “Reign of Christ” as a reminder that God’s dominion liberates us from sexist and hierarchical forms of social order. This reign is marked by a different set of values than the ones that rule the world around us. They are the values we heard in Jesus’ stump speech, the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, and as the ones running on God’s platform of justice and mercy, we are called to evaluate the campaign we are running with our lives, separately and together by the following set of values:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Mt. 25:31-40)
People of God, candidates, election day is today! It is now, like it has always been. You are voting with your lives. Christ, the servant, is Lord of all. We are the elect, those chosen to proclaim God’s politics until the day when the reign of God is fully realized and all of creation is reconciled to its creator. The Lord is near – Come, Lord Jesus!