Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 20, 2011: Reign of God/Christ the King: God’s Politics–“Election Day”

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 95:1-7a  •   Ephesians 1:15-23  •   Matthew 25:31-46

PrintIt’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!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 30, 2011: Reformation Sunday: God’s Politics, “Damage Control & Spin Doctors”

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 3:19-28  +  John 8:31-36

It was not quite four years ago, and the presidential campaign was in full swing, when a controversy arose over comments made by the pastor of a Chicago congregation that was home to one of the front-runners in the race. The candidate was Barack Obama, the pastor was Jeremiah Wright, and the comments concerned Pastor Wright’s interpretation of the events of September 11. At a time when our nation was paralyzed by polarized thinking – when the only way to be for us was to be against them – Jeremiah Wright made the near-blasphemous suggestion that the attacks of September 11th were attributable, at least in part, to our country’s economic exploitation and military presence throughout Africa and the Middle East.

PrintIt was an embarrassment for then-candidate Obama. Pastor Wright was the public voice and the prophetic conscience of one of the largest Black churches on the South Side of Chicago. Obama’s membership in that congregation was a sign of his deep roots in the African-American community and his solidarity with South-siders of all stripes. It was painful to watch pastor and president-to-be position themselves against one another. Eventually, in an act of damage control for his campaign, Barack Obama resigned his membership in the church.

The president at that time, George Bush, was quite familiar with the tactics of damage control and spin doctoring, sometimes both at once, as when his former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, released a memoir of his time in that position asserting that White House officials, including the president, relied on an aggressive political propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq war to the American people.

Spin doctors and damage control are permanent fixtures in today’s politics. Spin doctoring is the art of interpreting events in their most beneficial aspect for the benefit of the candidate, the elected official, the campaign, the party, etc. Damage control is that set of actions taken to limit the negative effects of any story that might hurt the candidate, official, and so on. As citizens and voters the words hit our own ears with a harsh tone, because we are so accustomed to our politicians protecting their self-interest through the tactics of spin doctoring and damage control.

These past few weeks we’ve been considering God’s Politics however, and we’ve opened ourselves up to the idea that the candidate for office God is backing is you, is each one of us. So, when God sets out to do damage control on our campaign, or to spin the story for positive effect, how might those efforts hit our ears? The answer isn’t far away, in fact, it’s shot all through this morning’s scriptures.

Consider the passage from Jeremiah. There we hear that God’s candidates had made campaign promises they failed to live up to. Specifically, they’d made a covenant with God, that they would be God’s people in a land filled with other gods, other values demanding their worship. Like many campaign promises, this one was broken not long after it was made, as the people of Israel found it more convenient or more profitable to offer their allegiance to the false gods of power and wealth.

Yet, rather than toss them aside like so much collateral damage in today’s political and military tactics, God remains faithful to God’s candidates even when they are unfaithful to God. God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33b-34)

Here we see that God’s Politics are an entirely different sort than the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. Faced with political embarrassment, with gross infidelity on the part of the candidates, with broken campaign promises, God does damage control not for the sake of God’s honor, but for the sake of God’s people. God does not cast aside those who struggle, those who fail, to live up to the planks of God’s platform. Instead, God spins the covenant in a new way. Remembering the law written on the tablets given to Moses at Mount Sinai, God declares through Jeremiah that God will write the law once again, but this time on our hearts, on flesh and not stone.

In the epigraph to his newest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer includes a quote from author Terry Tempest Williams in a 2004 article from Orion magazine. She writes,

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?[i]

Might this be what it means for God to have written God’s law on our hearts? That we have been called in our candidacy to consider our relationship to our neighbor not out of obligation, but out of love? That we have been called to listen and learn, rather than speak and judge? That we have been called to work “courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever” for the common good, for the ways of being that promote the most life for the most people? For the 99% and not the 1%. Could it be that God’s spin on the covenant is also how God does damage control for all of God’s people?

Candidates, and I mean all of you (and me as well), I have to tell you something about God’s Politics that runs counter to much of what’s being preached in the public square today. God is not a rugged individualist and God’s prophets do not preach the gospel of personal responsibility and self-reliance. One of my favorite preachers, Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, put it this way in his sermon last week,

Personal responsibility and self-reliance are fine values, as far as they go, but the heart of Christianity is in another place altogether. It has to do with community, with helping one another, with being vulnerable to one another, with being in this together, not with the rugged individualist who goes it alone. And by the way, the next time someone piously quotes to you the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” as a justification for cutting social programs, will you please remind that person that those words do not come from scripture, they were never spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, they come from Benjamin Franklin.[ii]

Or, in more ancient words, it is as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans,

“then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:27-28)

It is Reformation Sunday, so I would be remiss if, as a Lutheran, I did not make some mention of Martin Luther’s challenge to the powers and principalities of his day, of his confrontation with the Roman church over the sale of indulgences and his act of nailing 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. I don’t think, however, that our brother Martin was looking for fame or annual homage when he took this public action. No, I think he had more in common with those who now occupy the public spaces of cities across the nation this morning, demanding a politics and an economy worthy of the human spirit.

Luther’s rebellious act, which we commemorate today, was a form of civil protest over financial abuses committed by the church and carried out on the backs of the poorest of the poor. Holding their fear of hell over their heads, the church was selling indulgences, guarantees of the forgiveness of sin, as if that was ever theirs to offer. Freedom, Luther preached (recalling Jesus’ words to his opponents, recalling Jeremiah’s prophetic spin doctoring), comes from the deepest truth that in God’s love we are all forgiven, for free, forever.

The demanding question God’s Politics ask of us today is: if all are loved, and all are forgiven, and all belong in this world by virtue of their divine parentage and not their earthly rank, then why do our politics continue to divide and conquer us?

It is four years later and the campaign is, as always in full swing. Once again there are words coming from a Chicago pulpit challenging the candidate to name the sins of empire for what they are. But this time the candidate is you, and empire is all around us. It’s not just about ending the war, though it is that. It’s not just about occupying Wall Street, or Main Street, though it is that as well. It’s about finally setting aside the polarized politics of us and them and remembering God’s spin on the covenant, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” It is not the politics of the 99%, or the 1%, but of the 100%. It is God’s Politics, and we are its ambassadors.

Amen.


[i] http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/143/

[ii] http://soundcloud.com/plymouthchurch/a-culture-of-contempt-sermon#

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 23, 2011: “God’s Politics–Primaries, aka Mud-Slinging”

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8  • Matthew 22:34-46

PrintSo we began our six week series, “God’s Politics,” last week – and we started with the idea that during this season of elections, God has a candidate in the running already as well. That person’s name doesn’t rhyme with “The Rock Mohammed” or “Fit Mommie;” it’s you, and it’s me, and – more to the point – it is all of us together, as the body of Christ, running the race in Jesus’ place.

This week we move from candidate selection to the primaries, or (as we’ve really come to know this time in American politics) the season of mud-slinging. Mud-slinging is just about the most frustrating and tiresome aspect of campaigning, the course of which is predictable enough to set your watches by. First there is a call from both sides to focus on the issues and not the personalities. Then there is a public dissection of each candidate’s record, personal and public, designed to call attention to what the other considers to be their failures. Finally there is an attack campaign that makes establishing the common good a secondary goal to destroying the opponent.

As tedious and despicable as this process is for the general public, the real disappointment lies in the shrewd calculus employed by those who manage the candidates’ campaigns. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that campaigns go negative, really hit their worst notes, in the days just before the election. This isn’t just momentum, it’s not passion gone amuck. It’s a calculated attempt to depress voter turnout. Campaign strategists know that the general public is turned off by negative campaigns, that they actually depress voter turnout. So, often, once a campaign thinks it has gained the upper hand among those most likely to vote, there is often a decision to “go negative” in an effort to keep undecided voters home as their interest in the campaign turns to indifference.

This is democracy without ideals, and politics without soul.

I don’t know if we, the general public, have learned these tricks from our politicians – or if they have learned them from us – but either way, mud-slinging is hardly confined to local or national elections. It is deeply engrained in our culture of conflict. We barely know anymore how to disagree with one another without disparaging each other. It’s not enough to have a vision for the church, the city, the nation; we seem to feel compelled to torch the opposition, to accuse them of the worst sorts of sin and defects of character. If our way is righteous, then all other ways must be debased. If we are just, then all others must be corrupt. If I am right, you must be wrong.

The small group from St. Luke’s and Luther Memorial that’s begun reading Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, met together for the first time at a quiet pub in Ravenswood this past Wednesday night. It was a good turnout, there were about ten of us, and although we’re just starting to get to know each other, it’s clear that we don’t all have the same political or religious background. We are, however, interested in exploring together what it means to be people of faith in a world struggling to act faithfully.

In the chapters we’re reading for this upcoming Wednesday, Jim Wallis talks about moving beyond “the politics of complaint.” He gives the example of the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as he and other faith leaders from a wide range of political and denominational backgrounds pleaded with governmental leaders from the United States and Great Britain to find a different way forward – one that kept the world safe from the possibility of weapons of mass destruction without setting the precedent of pre-emptive war. In a time during which it would have been easy to write off as hopeless those who were set on a course of action they could not support, Wallis and others stayed in reasoned, respectful dialogue with the very people with whom they most deeply disagreed. Reflecting back on those difficult days Wallis writes,

Like many others, I came of age during the 1960s, when the struggle for justice was embodied in the archetype of protest. We learned our lessons about politics in the streets, and the habit of protest is still deep within us. But protest can become static and formulaic. The aim of effective and transformational protest should be to illumine a society to its need for change. In other words, protest must be instructive to succeed, more than destructive. It should, at its best, point the way to an alternative, rather than just register the anger of its demonstrators. Protest must not become just a ritual of resistance, offering a laundry list of grievances…

The power of protest is not in its anger but its invitation. The test of protest is whether it points and opens the way to change or merely denounces what is. When protest is both instructive and constructive in a society, it becomes something that has to be dealt with and not just merely contained.

In other words, the best protest is not merely countercultural, it is transformational. It gives a society a better vision for itself and for the future. That is the way of the prophets. They began in judgment but ended in hope for change. The biblical prophets were never just complaining; they were imagining a newer world.

For a book written in 2005, and talking about events from 2003, Wallis’ words sound remarkably fresh and relevant to the politics of the day, don’t they? If you’re watching our city and nation, and even the world, mobilizing massive protests calling for a change in the way we construct our life together, and you’re wondering if and how our faith informs these present day struggles, I really encourage you to consider joining our mid-week conversation. You can speak with me after worship for more details.

But to return to the scriptures appointed for this morning, the point they make is stunningly simple. Speaking to an audience no less divided by religion and politics than we are today, a society of haves and have-nots in the grips of a military occupation, Jesus avoids to the trap laid for him by his interrogators with the ethical wisdom at the heart of all the world’s religions, saying “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets.”

If you want to know how God’s politics sound on the lips of God’s candidates, it’s as simple as this, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That leaves no room for slander, or vengeance, or self-righteousness, either in public politics or in private life. It means we do not treat each other as pawns in a game, or as votes on a scorecard, but instead as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, and deserving of all the care and respect that comes therewith.

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer puts it like this,

Rightly understood, politics is no game at all. It is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day.

This is the politics of love, gospel politics, God’s politics, the kind of living for which Christians are called to labor together. In this season of campaigning, we are reminded that our whole lives are folded into God’s larger campaign in which we have already been elected, and by which we now run this race.

In the name of Jesus.

Amen.

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