Religion and Politics, Old First Sermon 08.19.12.

Religion and Politics, Old First Sermon 08.19.12.

Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 111; 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14.

A little less the 2 weeks ago, a friend of mine, also a colleague — a pastor — posted on FB. He wrote:

“I get all tingly just thinking about it: Countdown to the GOP convention: 8 days
(I’ve adjusted his numbers to be accurate as of today!); countdown to the Democratic convention: 15 days; countdown to the 1st presidential debate: 45 days… 53 days to the VP debate; 58 days to the 2nd presidential debate; 64 days to the 3rd presidential debate: 79 days to Election Day.

The next 3 months of electioneering gets some of us “tingly.” Some of us feel cynical and sort of hopeless. Others might get nervous and anxious over what’s at stake. Or terribly bored and hoping that sooner rather than later we can return to our regular programing. Whatever sort or condition you find yourself in this morning; which ever candidate or party you align yourself with, or not; what ever issue you care about deeply or even if you think none of it matters: I’m challenging you: the election matters… it deserves a place in our faithful hearts and minds.

We’re Christians who believe faith concerns the material conditions and our social settings as well as the spiritual conditions of our souls. The two are inextricably tied together in the command of love of God and neighbor. Our theology goes even further — to suggest the society we effect is often an an outward sign of our inward, spiritual health… or sickness. If things are well with our hearts and minds, our world tends to be in better shape too.

The sermon today is on religion and politics. Pastors know this is treacherous territory. The folk lore of our careers is full of tales (and fears) of colleagues who take what they thought was an important and unavoidable stand one week, only to see half the congregation exodus before the next Sunday.

The relationship between the faith and politcs is complex, controversial, ambiguous and demands more nuance AND compromise than congregational life often affords, particularly of its leaders and homiletics.
People don’t just get uncomfortable when politics and religion show up together in church,
they get irritable. Thus the caution never to mix the two.
…Even though, ironically, in our increasingly secular society, religion seems to have become almost inseparable, even the the bedfellow of almost all of our electoral politics.

Church, we might wish we could keep our hands clean, our hearts pure, and our sanctuary echoing with with only the most pristine, spiritual prayers, proclamations and affirmations. But we won’t stand for much if we’re unwilling make people — including ourselves — nervous, even uncomfortable.
There’s church wisdom that promises: if you don’t get any push back, it’s not that you’re being successful. It just means you aren’t pushing hard enough.

Beloved, doesn’t our faith have something to say… have to say something about politics? Or is the spiritual realm so separate, insulated, or attenuated, that our religion has no political implications?
There’s a threatening disconnect when something is happening in our world — anything that gets our attention or interest during the week — and then goes unmentioned on Sunday morning.

Can we gather this day without remembering the massacre of the striking miners in South Africa?

Does it make sense to go weeks in worship with no mention of the violence in Syria?

And where is our concern for hunger and HIV that are devastating sub-Saharan Africa?

When the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant was melting down after the tsunami, should I have worked some faithful reflections on energy policy into my preaching or our worship services?

With this church’s prayer tradition, it’s not just up to me. Our prayers are no more of less than what you lift up. Shouldn’t we hear each week, right alongside the petitions for ourselves and those near to us,
long lists of thanksgivings and prayers for the needs of far flung parts of God’s world?

Our reading about King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom illustrates the overlap between religion and politics. If God cares about all human life… If there’s no aspect of our existence that has to be apart from God… If politics is how we organize and run our communities and our world — either so people’s basic needs are met or not, of course God’s concerned about the complicated and oh so imperfect politics of our world.

If you think about the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books, is about the origins of Israel as a nation and the giving of the law. The prophets then focus on conflicts between Israel, Judah and other nations, they offer criticisms of unethical, unjust and unfaithful behavior of the Jewish people, particularly the Israelite elites and rulers. The historical books, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles — wherein we find today’s prayer of Samuel, asking for wisdom to govern his people — are basically a political narrative, running for 250 pages and covering over 400 years, talking about how the religious hierarchy is involved in government from Israel’s first King, David, to the Babylonian Captivity. It can get a little dry, as its sources clearly include: government archives, bureaucratic invoices, and court records.
We read about David and Solomon’s reigns. But also about Israel’s role in the geo-politics of Assyria, Edom, Egypt, Moab and Tyre. There are wars, alliances, alliances made by marriage, conspiracies, assassinations, economic trade agreements, and foreign policy negotiations. We read about Solomon’s massive public works projects, the temple at Jerusalem and his royal palace, both of which built with slave labor conscripted from resident aliens. We read of Solomon’s incomparable wealth.

It all reveals what I heard a preacher proclaim once, as “a brilliant glimpse of the obvious” that the Bible, like the God who it is revealing, can be profoundly political.

Church, God’s not afraid to get God’s hands dirty. To wade right into the middle of our mixed, even dirty politics right like God gets involved with our unclean hearts in order to try and redeem what’s less than pure that it might serve a higher calling. Our faith offers a prophetic critique of political power
whenever it’s anything less!

And if we want to be faithful, we aren’t going to get away with any safety in silence, any irresponsibility in apathy, or the various blindnesses of ideological fervor. No matter how political you are, or aren’t…
how comfortable, or not you are bringing politics into church, they are already here, in upper and lower case!

I want to make 2 points this morning:

First, despite their inherent relation, mixed blood really, we run a great risk when we confuse politics with religion. It’s true that conservative Christians tend to be Republicans just as surely as progressive Christians tend to be Democrats. And some progressives think religion is really all politics while some conservatives want to make all politics about religion. Both are wrong. Neither side can claim to identify their stance with the Christian Gospel. God can work through our impure politics in Washington and Harrisburg and in City Hall, but God is not some cosmic President. And the United States is not ancient Israel. All claims to Manifest Destiny aside, we do not represent God and cannot claim — ought not claim –God’s agenda in the world anymore than other people.

We are decidedly NOT a Christian nation. Look how we act! Though I wish our national behavior were better, we were never meant to be a Christian nation, even when we demographically pretty much were. From our founding a few blocks from here, the U.S. was designed as secular state that promises freedom to people of different faiths and no faith — the freedom to live according to their conscience.
A commitment that must still make William Penn proud.

What it means, however, is that our politicians shouldn’t offer religious commitments as public arguments for policy decisions. Every liberal Catholic candidate makes this abundantly clear
when she or he battles the prejudice that fears Catholic politicians are no more than pawns of the pope.
But these days some conservative Catholic politicians proudly proclaim their obedience to the teachings of their church. Without ever providing any public policy arguments for their positions. The conservative Protestants sometimes do the same thing. With all due respect, even here in church, I’m not sure we want to hear what a politician thinks the Bible says or means. Their sacred text in office is the constitution and the laws of the land.

That’s my point. We want politicians who are true to their conscience. And true to their motives. And, of course, politicians can be people of faith. Though, despite the prejudices of our electoral politics,
they don’t have to be. But if they are religious folk, I pray their religious understandings affect how they see and respond and act in the world. But their personal religious commitments can’t be substituted
for the political arguments appropriate in our secular state.

Of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition is deeply a part of our North American culture. It’s hard to say much about what matters most, difficult to talk about justice and fairness in our common life without beginning to sound religious — without at least drawing some religious literary allusions. But can we ask the the politicians to stick to talking politics? Let the preachers and the rabbis and the Imams handle the religious statement. Or better, let every Christian, Jew and Muslim speak openly, honestly, proudly of his or her faith. But let’s remember that the politicians are supposed to represent all of them, a diverse body politic.

Can they then stick to talking politics? How to run a nation. How to assure the least powerful of their equal rights. How to advocate for justice in our world. How to put people to work. How to build an economy that works for the country and the rest of the world.

It’s not that there aren’t religious implications to our political decisions and actions. Religious convictions, if they matter at all, inevitably have political implications. That’s why this congregation is involved in POWER and so many complicated, nitty-gritty political decisions about community benefits agreements for jobs at the airport and about the process for reforming our schools. But religious reasoning isn’t adequate explanation for our broadest, public political forums.

Which brings me to my second point this morning: despite the risks and complexities and discomfort,
if we say we are religious, even if you’re making the claim to being “spiritual, but not religious”
if we want to be faithful, we can’t duck politics! Martin King, the great religious prophet to our civil nation, pointed out “no religion ought to claim to be concerned about people’s souls and ignore the slums that condemn them.” As followers of Jesus, we aren’t expected to steer clear of politics.
We can’t keep our hands clean …any more than Jesus could stay out of the mess in our compromised world God so loves.

So, yes, of course, your faith has something to say about politics. Pray about it. Share your faith and what it means to you. Act out your faith. Vote your faith. Maybe as a church we need to be talking more,
as individuals and a community, about how our faith translates into various political commitments?
I don’t mean to be partisan from the pulpit, but I reserve the right to speak about issues and the demands our faith. For example, I don’t think we as a church can excerpt the questions of immigration reform from God’s expectations about justice. If, as a religious community, we can develop enough trust to talk openly with one another… If we can disagree honestly when we see things differently,
and still welcome and love and have faith in one another… then our church should be a primary place
for discussions of our belief’s political implications.

Even when we can’t meet all those conditions as a community, doesn’t each believer still have to consider in her or his heart the worldviews and the commitments and the actions his or her faith calls for? Don’t you need religiously to ask yourself, “what’s God expecting of me? What’s God expect of our society? And
then to figure out how they translate into a political life, the positions one supports or opposes,
the candidates one needs to vote for. I’m asking you to bring your faith deeply, intimately
to your politics without using religion as a weapon to coerce others.

God is still at work, even in our over-politicized world. And can even work through broken vessels —
red states and blue states, backroom deals and painful compromises, our mixed motives and our unclean hearts.

God hasn’t given up. We can’t either. Part of our faithful witness has to be standing and acting and speaking for the world God means to be a home for everyone. As I said before, if we mean to be faithful, we aren’t allowed the safety of silence, the irresponsibility of apathy, or any ideological blindness.

It’s a thin line: there’s always risk becoming some palace prophet or some temple prostitute.
Even Solomon struggled and failed as a leader. Despite the prayer with which he began, and God’s response, his story ends with personal corruption to lesser gods and indefensible practices (such as child sacrifice). There was the national catastrophe when his son Rehoboam provoked a civil war that ripped the country apart and really only ended with defeat by the the foreign powers of Assyria and then Babylon.

Much is at stake. It’s easy to get cynical, but as long as politics often decides who has food on the table each day… As long as politics involves, quite literally, who lives or dies… That’s the stuff God cares about. God’s people are to care as well.

Jesus got in trouble with some people because he wasn’t willing to be political the way they wanted him to be. But every time he spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, he was making a claim about Empire…
that undercut all the Roman Empire’s claims:

If Jesus is the Son of God, none of this world’s Ceasars can claim to be.
The true Son of God comes in peace on donkey, not on a warhorse.
Not with a sword, but with a towel and a basin.
He endures torture to end others’ tortures.
He loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him.
He dies and is resurrected, rather than experiencing death in the killing others.

Yes, our faith offers a challenging critique to all our political positions, others as well as our own: because our faith asks us to give up our self-interest for the care of others. Church, the usual “oh so human” political strategies are off limits in God’s love:

No more of the Romans’ “If only we were in charge.”
No more of the Zealots, “If only they weren’t in charge.”
No more of the Pharisees’ “If only other people would change.”
No more of the Essenes’ “There’s no hope for this world.”

Instead, Jesus’ Kingdom or Empire point to another way: Instead of stepping over or holding donw others, we are to serve them. Instead of getting revenge when we think someone has done us wrong, we are to reconcile even with those who harm us. Instead of scapegoating the “problem people” (usually known as our “enemies”); instead of blaming others, we are to accept and embrace. Instead of withdrawing from the world into the spiritual safety of some spiritual sanctuary from the world, we are called out into the complicated, messy world, because that’s where we find the “neighbors” whom we are to love and to serve.

Will you pray with me:

Lord, give our leaders wisdom and servants’ hearts. But lest we pray for others to do for us what we ought to do for ourselves… Lord, make us wise, help us to see and understand, to pray and to listen, to speak and act,.not for ourselves, but for your whole world. In Jesus‘ name. In Jesus’ love. Amen.