Bearing One Another's Burdens (or "We're not Communists, Rev. Warren: We're Christians Witnessing to the Resurrection by Celebrating Our Responsibility for One Another")

Bearing One Another's Burdens (or "We're not Communists, Rev. Warren: We're Christians Witnessing to the Resurrection by Celebrating Our Responsibility for One Another")

Psalm 133; Acts 4:32-35.

I disappoint myself sometimes — my sermons don’t end up as political as I’d fancy them to be.

That may be a relief to some of you! But I believe faith sets us in an activist position between now and eternity… calls us to attend to our individual lives as well as the social contexts around which those lives add up to fruition or devolve into frustration. Religion is not just vertical; it’s horizontal too.

Still, despite my intentions (or pretensions), my sermons end up more about Christian attitudes towards our experiences and the people around us — often about humility and compassion, rather than social-political specifics.

That’ s what I was trying to explain to the Christian Science Monitor for the profile about me written as one example of the much larger story about how faith affects politics. The reporter asked if my preaching was overtly political. Not partisan, but political.

I responded that I sometimes worry it is not. To reinforce my point, to throw my comment in high relief, I shared an anecdote, a real-life story, something that had happened just the week before:

I was having dinner with a couple who’ve become frequent guests. One of them said to me: “I keep coming back because your preaching is a challenge to me, because I think that capitalism is the best way to organize the economy and the society.”

What struck me about the person’s comment wasn’t the faith in capitalism. I assume most North Americans share that to some degree, though we may not often express it so clearly. (For most of us, I think, capitalism feels more like an inevitable, invisible force, almost like gravity.)

What really surprised me was that anyone from my preaching might suspect that I’m critical of capitalism. Or that anyone would really have any idea from my sermons where I stand on the spectrum of the economic beliefs!

From talking to me, sure. Or, oh my word, if my FB page hasn’t gotten me on some government surveillance list! But from my preaching?

As can happen, in print — the reporter used the direct quote — what I said came off sounded different, left a different impression than I had intended. Mind you, she did a good job of describing my faith and how it translates into my political beliefs and actions.

But Old First: we sound like a threat to the status quo… some hotbed of seething red conspiracy, a sort of communist training camp. Sitting here each Sunday with our Party membership cards in our wallets right next to our stewardship checks.

The article made it sound as if among this red sea of socialists, there is this one brave capitalist trying to stem the tide. I imagine a robber baron pulling up out front in a chauffer-driven limousine and strutting in here in a top hat and waistcoat, with a gold pocket watch…

Last Sunday, while we were at church on Easter, ABC’s “This Week” featured Jake Tapper’s interview with Pastor Rick Warren of Purpose-Driven life fame.

Tapper ran a video clip of President Obama who said: “…I believe in God’s command to love thy neighbor as thyself. And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills, to shoulder the burden alone.”

Then Tapper asked Warren, “So, is he — is he right?”

To which Rick Warren responded: “Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them, and God will bless them.

But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of ‘fairness.’ Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.”

You can read the whole transcript on-line, and, frankly, it’s sort of depressing. Warren, like some Washington politician, side-steps answering the questions in order to throw out a bunch of ideological catch words and vague charges to stir up a constituency.

Obama is suggesting the wealthy to bear their fair share of the tax burden, or at least forgo their tax breaks. Warren responds, in effect, that eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy is income redistribution. That proportionate taxing of very large incomes is insisting we all make the same amount of money. A communist revolution. Ah, yes, the conservative claim reheated and served again: Obama’s not a Democratic. He’s Marxist-Leninist!

It’s depressing. Have we lost all ability to have real, deep discussions as a society?

Interestingly, the Rev. Susan Russell, a priest on staff at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, responded this week with an open letter to Rev. Warren. She wrote:

Dear Rick,

Seriously? Do the Bibles at Saddleback Church not have the 20th chapter of Matthew in them? And if so, then what do you do with the parable of the workers — the one where those who worked for only an hour were paid the same as those who worked all day… and when the all-day-workers grumbled that it “wasn’t fair” (stay with me now) … Jesus’ response ” are you envious because I am generous?” … and then (famously said) “for the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

It seems that the WWJD answer to your “Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money?” would be “Yes.” (See also: Isaiah 55:8 “My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord.”)

And what about Matthew 25 — the chapter with what my seminary professor called “The Final Final Exam?” You must know that one — when Jesus comes to judge on the last day and the answer that gets you into the sheep fold rather than the goat line is not “inasmuch as you were fundamentally fair” — it was “inasmuch as you fed the hungry, clothed the naked and gave water to the thirsty.” And it was most certainly not “inasmuch as you “created wealth” — it was “inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these.”

Finally, Rick — while I’ve got you — can we talk contraception… just for a minute? When you told Jake Tapper “the issue here is not about women’s health” you were well — in a word — wrong.

It is about women’s health. It is totally about women’s health and a woman’s access to healthcare not being held hostage by the theology of her employer. There is a greater principle at stake here – but it is not the one you named: “the right to decide what your faith practices.” That one is already protected by the First Amendment. Rather the principle at stake is the freedom of women to make health choices independent of their employer’s faith practice that is on the line here.

And that brings me back to a couple of purpose driven things:

First there’s the purpose of God’s preferential option for the poor made manifest in the work and witness of Jesus of Nazareth.

And then there’s the purpose of liberty and justice for all meant to protect not just freedom of religion for those who choose to practice it but freedom from religion for those who just want equal access to health care.

The former would be in the Bible and the latter in the Bill of Rights.

If you need to brush up on either we’ve got them both here at All Saints Church in Pasadena. Drop on by — the door is always open!”

I was thinking about all these things when I turned to the lectionary lessons for today. And voila’, there it is was, clear as day, striking really, in Acts 4: the reminder that… how did our Warren put it in the introduction to the New Testament Reading this morning?:

“…in the early church, the believers held all things in common. There were no private property. No possession that belonged to one, but not all. That’s how the community lived out the commandment that we Christians love one another and love our neighbors as ourselves. In so doing, the community of faith gave testimony and witness to Jesus’ resurrection…”

Folks, I find it hard to present this or that political issue or policy decision or program initiative as “of God.” The life of our social compacts and all our systems are as human, imperfect, and prone to brokenness — and the need to reform as the church itself.

But still, despite all our clay feet, these sorts of very human decisions, beliefs and actions– as imperfect as they are and even if they only last for a day– affect humans, make or break the quality of our lives. Taxes, health care, medicaid, social security, war… Sometimes this or that political issue is quite literally the difference between life and death for some people. And if God cares ultimately about every last person, and her or his suffering or salvation…

Martin King wrote in Stride Towards Freedom: “Any religion true to its nature must also be concerned about… social conditions. Any religion that professes to be concerned with… souls, but is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, the social conditions which cripple them is a dry as dust religion.”

King was naming… critiquing some sort of an Ezekiel 37 Valley of Dry Bones religion. Beloved, we’re an Easter people: we believe dry bones can yet live, have their hope restored, even come up from their graves.

So, church, I’m not going to ever tell you that this or that political position, or opinion or program is holy. Or our salvation. Or the only way to be faithful. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to take positions as Christians informed by our faith.

And, sometimes too, we need to stand up and speak loud for something as a church. And doing so will get us in trouble. Make some people disapprove. Or complain that we’re mixing politics and religion.

But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t repeat the Biblical challenges. If I fell short of insisting that our faith expects us to care for one another, even when that means giving away our cloak. And Jesus is clear: we are to bear each other’s burdens, even if that means walking the second mile.

Aren’t we the Christians who find the church most faithful when it sees and practices a Godly concern that knows no ends, that extends right down to the last and the least of us?

Beloved, that’s not politics, that’s faith. My sermon is titled “Bearing One Another’s Burdens.” Maybe better would have been, “We’re not Communists! Rev. Warren; we’re Christians witnessing to the Resurrection by celebrating our responsibility for one another.)

Now, socially, and economically and politically, as Christians, we need to figure out what that means… How does God mean for us to be in the world. What are we to stand for?