Sunday, September 21, 2008

How (not) to vote

On living Christianly in a political world
John 18:33-38; Matthew 22:15-22

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I’m going to sit down to give my sermon this morning.
It’s purely a symbolic gesture.
I am not abandoning or diminishing the pulpit.

I sit, because I’m preaching on politics.
I watched both the Democratic and Republican conventions.
They all spoke behind very impressive pulpits,
backed by Greek columns, and flags, and generals,
and video screens 3-stories tall.
They sounded like preachers.
Same religious fervor.
Preaching theological themes,
like hope, and faith, and unity.
Without a lot of editing,
some of those speeches could have passed for sermons.
So, I want to distance myself this morning
from what we heard in Denver and St. Paul.

Another symbolic reason for sitting,
is to emphasize that sermon is dialogue.
I don’t take for granted
the privilege I have to climb a podium most Sundays
and speak my mind to the public for twenty minutes.
But the sermon is more than proclamation.
It’s the start of conversation.
Yes, I’m a pastor and preacher.
But my first commitment is to be faithful
as a member of this mutually discerning community.
I’m glad some Sunday School classes
are continuing the conversation.
I hope conversation continues elsewhere.
These are important matters.

Okay, but preaching politics
in a church of diverse and strongly-held political viewpoints?
Am I being courageous? Or stupid?
Or both? (which is a dangerous combination)

It will soon become clear,
that despite my provocative sermon title,
our congregation’s tax exempt status will not be at risk this morning.
Next Sunday, the 28th, is “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” . . .
according to a certain Christian group that wants all pastors
to preach for or against specific candidates,
in a mass revolt against the IRS rules.
Ehhh . . . we’re going to be busy next Sunday . . .
preaching the gospel.

Yes, politics is divisive, in this country, and in the church.
To lighten the mood we joke about it.
And then keep quiet.
Agree to disagree.
Well, this sermon is my little protest against
this thing of keeping quiet to keep the peace.
It ought not be that way in the body of Christ.

So I’m breaking the silence this morning,
not with the right answers,
but (hopefully) with the right questions.
Questions that as we ask them and explore them,
might lead to a better place.

Let’s first ask ourselves about who we believe we are,
as a church.

Are we the body of Christ?
I think we’d all say yes to that.
We embody the presence of Jesus Christ in the world.
We continue his ministry.
So we represent the character and values of Jesus,
as a body.
I think you’re with me on that.

So, what were the character and values of Jesus,
that we need to continue?

Jesus had no shyness about politics.
He acted as a full member of Jewish society.
His people were once a sovereign nation,
but now were ruled by an empire.
Jesus rubbed shoulders with the power structures—
religious powers and state powers,
the politics of the temple and the politics of Caesar.

He was quite willing to confront either one, but not on their terms.
The religious politicians were stuck
on a certain kind of legalistic righteousness.
Jesus confronted their power,
but not by taking over their positions in the temple,
and enforcing a new righteousness.
He confronted their power by touching lepers,
eating with tax collectors,
hanging with sinful women,
and otherwise living a different kind of righteousness.
He practiced the politics of radical love.

Jesus confronted the power of the Empire,
but not by taking up arms and staging a coup,
like some other Jewish rebels.
He confronted them by refusing to acknowledge
that their power was absolute.
Caesar expected to be worshiped as Lord and Savior.
Literally. He used those words.

In Matthew 22, the gospel reading today,
Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar.
He called for a coin,
and pointed out Caesar’s head, and said,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
and give to God what is God’s.”
That was not an endorsement of Caesar’s authority!
That was almost a revolutionary act.
He denied Caesar’s absolute and divine authority.
Caesar tried to erase any distinction
between himself and God.
Jesus drew a sharp line.
“These coins have Caesar’s picture on them.
We’ll give him that much,
and give God the rest.”
Jesus confronted the powers,
but not on their terms.

He ended up dying for it.
His death on the cross was carried out by an unholy alliance
between the politicians of the temple and of the empire.
Both seats of power were threatened
by the politics of Jesus.
And Jesus never raised a sword,
never tried to take over anyone’s position,
never demonized the opposition.
He just lived a life of radical love,
and laid down his own life as a sacrifice,
rather than betray the character of God’s kingdom.

His death on a cross—
standard execution for an insurrectionist—
did not destroy the Empire’s power,
nor the temple authority.
Those powers went on their merry way.

But God still won the conflict, we Christians confess.
The resurrection of Jesus shamed the powers.
It exposed their powerlessness.
It demonstrated that God’s power
has a radically different character,
than the power at work in the structures of this world.

As Jesus said in our reading today,
“My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom were from this world,
my followers would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over.”

So I’m left to wonder.
What does this mean for the body of Christ today,
as we represent Christ in the public square?
How do we represent
the power of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole,
the power of responding to violence with love,
the power of lifting up the weak,
of blessing the poor, of welcoming the alien.
That is who we are. That is how we live.
Until we get involved in politics.

There is a stark and drastic and irreconcilable difference
between the character of the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus,
and the character of partisan politics.

Those who seek political power and position
are not just permitted, they are expected to attack,
not only the ideas,
but the character, integrity and dignity of their opponent.

Is this the kind of activity
we who claim to represent the Spirit of Christ in the world,
should feel comfortable participating in,
or even standing on the sidelines cheering?
Can we be involved in partisan politics,
and still maintain our integrity
as citizens of God’s kingdom?
And if so, are there limits? Where do we draw the line?

This presidential race is, in fact, rather exciting. It has drama.
All the candidates have interesting personalities, charisma,
compelling personal narratives.
In terms of gender and race, this one will be historic.
It’s hard not to get emotionally invested
no matter which side you favor.

But I still wonder,
how is it, that Christians get so thrilled about it,
get filled with religious fervor, and I mean religious fervor,
in support of their candidate?

If our first loyalty is to a kingdom where we
love our enemies,
do good to those who hate us,
lift up those who stumble,
and strengthen the weak . . .
Why do we get beside ourselves with joy
when our candidate really sticks it to the other one.
And get downright gleeful when the opposition stumbles,
when our adversary looks weak,
when our candidate piles on insults and verbal abuse.

But even putting aside the adversarial stuff,
there is a deeper question that haunts me.

If God’s mission is to save and redeem and heal the broken world,
and God chose a people—a new covenant community—
to be his agents of salvation in the world,
shouldn’t that be where our hope is?

How have we come to put so much hope,
so much expectation,
so much faith,
in which party is running the U.S. government?

Sure, it’s all very interesting.
It merits our paying attention to it.
It might even merit our participation with a vote.
But why do we Christians, of all people,
put so much stock in it?
Why are we so invested?

I wonder if it’s only possible to put so much hope
in the outcome of a political campaign,
if we have made a radical split
between public and private faith,
between the sacred and the secular.
I wonder if we get so excited about politics,
because we don’t really believe that our Christian calling
extends beyond our private, personal,
and internal relationship with Jesus.
If, however, we refuse to privatize our faith in Jesus,
if we believe that Jesus is Lord over all of life,
public and private,
then we cannot walk into the realm of politics
without taking with us our
first loyalty to the kingdom of God.
We can’t cut our lives into two parts, can we?
The part where we act like we represent the body of Christ,
and the part where we don’t?

Some of you might think it’s naive of me,
but for some reason,
I’m inclined to trust the people of God
more than I trust a political party
to be able to help bring about the will of God in the world today.

I have a robust ecclesiology.
Or in plain English,
I am a strong believer that the church is necessary,
and is central to God’s saving plan for the world.
And by “church,” I mean
the community of Jesus followers, the body of Christ.

Now, do I think the church has a good track record
on its engagement with the world?
No, I think it’s abysmal. Read some church history.

Do I think the church today finally has its act together,
and has the moral right to set the direction
for our nation and the world?
No, the church is still a human organism,
and a system permeated by sin,
composed of and led by a bunch of sinners.
We can’t afford to be anything but
humble and deeply repentant toward the world.

Do I think the church has a corner on wisdom, expertise, and gifts
necessary to turn the course of this world around
and in the right direction?
No, as a church, we are a bunch of ordinary people,
with ideas and skills that are both ordinary,
and often contradictory.
The church looks an awful lot like the world.

But do I think that in God’s strange and indecipherable wisdom,
God chose us anyway
as the agent by which God intends to reveal his saving grace
to the world?
Do I think that the Holy Spirit has been given to the church,
for such a time as this,
to empower us,
to give us wisdom, and courage,
to authentically demonstrate God’s kingdom on earth?
Yes, I do think that.
I have to think that, if I take scripture seriously.

The kingdom of God is our home.
It’s where we belong.
It’s our identity.
And kingdom power is the power of sacrificial love,
of non-violence,
of respect for the “least of these” in the world.

So, I really wonder how we can manage to be good Kingdom citizens,
while actively engaging in national partisan political battles.

We do believe, don’t we,
that character assassination is not Christlike behavior?
We do believe, don’t we,
that using deceit, psychological manipulation, and half-truths
to gain positions of power
is not the way of the kingdom of God?
We do believe, don’t we,
that God has a higher goal for our national agenda,
than to force our will on other nations with bombs and guns?

So isn’t it rather odd Christians get so enmeshed
in a system that does exactly all those things?

Let me propose that we make just one solid, baseline commitment
going into November.
How we work it out will be up to us,
and I’m sure we won’t all choose exactly the same path.

But do you think we can all make this one commitment?
That our loyalty to the kingdom of God,
will always come first,
before our loyalty to any political party’s agenda,
or any political party’s candidate.
Kingdom ethics, and the way of Jesus,
need to shape our private and our public life,
more than partisan politics.
That ought to be a no-brainer for Christians.

So what does this mean for us sitting here at PVMC?
I’ll suggest a couple things.
In your ongoing conversations, please add some more.

Maybe, as starters, we need to not only respect and tolerate,
but honor and love each other,
as fellow disciples of Jesus.
We must stubbornly refuse to let political differences
determine who we are in fellowship with.

And maybe, instead of attending party meetings and rallies,
and soaking up partisan propaganda
that fills our mailboxes and airwaves and voicemail,
we might call together some of our brothers and sisters in Christ,
ones with whom we are in covenant,
and ones with whom we disagree on politics,
and have an evening of prayer and conversation,
asking each other how, as followers of Jesus,
we should participate in the political process this fall.
Sounds almost radical.
But isn’t it common Christian sense,
to actually use values of the kingdom of God,
and the wisdom of the discerning community,
to assess the positions and character of the candidates?

And maybe it means,
that rather than go into the voting booth believing
this is our one best chance to change the world,
we vote . . . if we vote . . . with a healthy dose of skepticism,
and throw our lot in with the people of God,
and commit ourselves to be more faithful to our calling
as local and global agents
of the saving work of God in the world.

I certainly don’t condemn those of you
who do attend party rallies,
or sport bumper stickers and plant yard signs
and are otherwise gung-ho for your party of choice.
I simply want us all to ask ourselves honestly,
what it means to be gung-ho
about our citizenship in the kingdom of God . . .
what it means to do as Jesus taught us,
to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.

We were all taught, as children, the pledge of allegiance.
That probably has its place in civil society.
But we who follow Jesus seek first the kingdom of God.
Our allegiance to Jesus Christ supercedes all others.

In your bulletin is a copy of a Christian Pledge of Allegiance.
It’s business-card size, perfect for wallets.
So take it with you.
I challenge us to be literally,
card-carrying citizens of the Kingdom of God.

If you can read this pledge in good conscience,
I invite us to do so now, in unison:
I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,
and to God’s kingdom for which he died—
one Spirit-led people the world over,
indivisible, with love and justice for all.

--September 21, 2008

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