Sunday, November 13, 2016

Stewardship and a Post-Election Christian Political Vision

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Colossians 1:11-20; Mark 2:23-28

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It’s typical for us at this time of year—
    about the time we start working on next year’s spending plan
    and distribute the Faith Promise letters and forms—
        to plan a couple Sundays focusing on stewardship.
    We did that again this year.

That might sound a little self-serving, institutionally speaking,
    and you could make a credible argument that it is.
    But I say, we don’t talk about stewardship enough.
    Stewardship is a way bigger theological theme than we think.

Even so, maybe you’re skeptical of my sermon title,
    “Stewardship and a Post-Election Christian Political Vision.”

You hear me say we’re focusing on stewardship today,
    and then you look at my sermon title,
    and you assume I went through some major mental gymnastics
    to turn a stewardship sermon
        into a chance to preach about something
        we’re all thinking about anyway, the presidential election.

Well, you’re right that I’m turning a stewardship sermon
    into an opportunity to address the topic of Christians and politics.
    But you’d be wrong,
        if you think I went through any mental gymnastics whatsoever
            to do this.
    Stewardship and politics are intimately related.
    It’s entirely natural to speak of an election in stewardship terms.

    Someone has defined Christian stewardship as
        everything we do after we say, “we believe.”
    That’s become my working definition.

Stewardship is a core theological concept.
    It starts with an affirmation about God.
    It affirms that everything good has its origin in God.
        Hence, the tag line for this two-Sunday series—“It’s all gift.”
            And we receive it as such.

Christian stewardship also asserts that while our lavish God
    invites us to share in the abundance of these good things—
    God does not transfer ownership.
    God invites us into partnership.
    God shares access to all this goodness and beauty and creativity,
        and asks only one thing of us—
        after we receive them,
            we use them for God’s own good purposes,
            and not for selfish purposes that work against God’s agenda.

Our scripture this morning underscored this.
    In Ecclesiastes 3, we heard that “there is a time for everything,
        and a season for every activity under the heavens:
        for birth and death,
            planting and harvesting,
            laughter and tears,
        for construction and destruction,
            dancing and mourning,
            keeping and discarding, etc etc.

Everything has its time, and its season.
    We heard that God has made everything beautiful in its time.
    We heard that time itself is the gift of a generous God,
        as is eternity a gift.
        We cannot add to, or take from, this gift.
    We heard that God put into our minds a sense of past and future.
    Yet, whatever IS has already BEEN,
        and what WILL BE has BEEN BEFORE.

I’m not sure I grasp that entirely,
    but it sounds like a good way to look at stewardship of time.
    Every day is a brand new day, yes!
        Every year a new year.
    But whenever we take a step into an uncertain future,
        the good news is that God has already been there.

And this time is all a gift God graced us with.
    Time – “on the clock” time and Sabbath time –
        is a gracious gift for which we are receptive stewards.
    In the Gospel story,
        when the disciples broke a Sabbath regulation,
            and had a run-in with the religious police,
        Jesus responded,
            “The Sabbath was made for us, not vice versa.”
            It’s a gift for our enjoyment and stewardship.

And then from Colossians 1,
    we heard an eloquent and lavish declaration
        of the preeminence of Jesus Christ, God’s firstborn,
    who fills all things, in heaven and on earth,
    who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together.

All that is, and all that will be,
    are in the gracious and generous hands of God in Christ,
        the head of the body, the church,
        the beginning and the end.
    God is Sovereign, source, and starting point
        of all that is and will be,
        and has graciously invited us to receive and participate.

That’s the beginning point for stewardship.
And therefore, it must also be the beginning point of our political lives.

So let me talk about politics, specifically Christian politics.
    Politics, in the full sense of the word,
        is how a community of people—a society, a nation, a church—
            choose to inhabit shared space and time,
        how they see themselves, as a group, in relationship to others,
        how they choose to live together, how they decide things,
        how they distribute authority and resources.

    The practice of politics is essential to being human
        and essential to being Christian.
    We must speak of politics in the church,
        because human beings are wired for relationship,
            and Christians are called into a body.
        Therefore there is (and always will be) the necessity
            to clarify the nature of Christian politics.

    Does that thought scare you?
        If it doesn’t, it probably should.
        Because we as a Christian community have a unique challenge
            when it comes to shaping our political life:
            We have more than one citizenship.
            We have a responsibility to be good citizens
                of whatever civil government has authority over us.
                Scripture speaks clearly about that. See Romans 13.
            We are called to work for the well-being of all.
                Even if we are aliens in Babylon, so to speak,
                    we work for the shalom of our society.
                See Jeremiah 29.

        But no authority on this earth is permitted to overrule
            the authority that God Most High has already laid claim to.
            As God’s people—and specifically as followers of Jesus
                called into a new community,
                and made citizens of the Kingdom of God—
                we have another, and greater, political mandate,
                sealed with one foundational confession—
                    a spoken vow of citizenship
                    that should strike fear into the heart
                        of every earthly empire, including our own.
                It is the confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
                    That means Caesar is not.
                    Nor is any president or president-elect,
                        or king or queen or emperor or dictator,
                        or Congress or City Council.
                Or as the apostles in the book of Acts put it,
                    “We must obey God before humans.”

        This is not just individual resistance I’m talking about,
            where certain brave individuals put their lives on the line
                for a cause they believe in,
                    and stand up for civil rights, or
                    for protection of water and sacred land,
            or where someone individually chooses,
                for conscience sake, to object to war.

        No, the church, collectively,
            is its own political body,
            organized around
                a very different set of political principles.
        And it functions as a real, social and political entity
            overlapping with other political entities where it lives.
        And as we do so, we have the theological nerve
            to say we represent Jesus Christ in this world.
            As part of that body of Christ,
                we have our own set of binding political mandates.

        These mandates are counter-cultural,
            and counter to partisan politics, in just about every way.
        They do not rely on violence or threat of violence.
        They do not permit coercion or practicing power over.
        They are biased toward the poor and the suffering
            and the excluded.
        They demand we stubbornly love all people,
            to point of self-sacrifice, even martyrdom.
        They call us to be uncalculatingly generous
            (a point I made a couple weeks ago).
        They invite us to serve and help anyone in need,
            with no thought to recognition or reward
                or tax breaks for doing so.

        Sisters and brothers, that is our political mandate
            as followers of Jesus.
        That mandate has not been modified one iota,
            or made any easier, or any more difficult,
            because of the results of the election last Tuesday.
        As a community of Christ, our political status
            is the same as it was on Monday, November 7.
            Our political identity is unaltered.

    What is changing, and changing profoundly, and disturbingly,
        is the political and moral landscape around us—
            that of our political leaders, and leaders-to-be,
            as well as many in our society who feel newly empowered
                to speak and act in violent ways,
        because violent speech is being normalized by our leaders.

    This election season was unbelievably toxic and violent.
        We will not recover from it soon.
        As far as President-Elect Trump is concerned,
            in recent days, thankfully, there has been
                less vitriol and bullying and sheer meanness
                than what we heard from him during his candidacy.
        I don’t take that to mean
            there’s been a sudden change in his moral center.
            I think he’s adjusting his behavior to fit a new situation.
        The rhetoric and behavior of President Trump is yet to be seen.
            I hope it’s radically different than Candidate Trump.

    But as troubling as Donald Trump may be to many of us,
        even more troubling is the hatred and anger and violent spirit
            that has been unleashed in our society.
    What we all assumed was “beyond the pale” just a few years ago,
        has now become commonplace.
        In no way do I imply that everyone who cast a vote for Trump—
            including the many who did it while holding their nose—
            support his immoral words and behavior.
        Among those who voted for him
            are people who I know to be kind and generous
            and hospitable to everyone.

        But, let us be clear. And honest.
        There are elements within our culture—
            often within white male Christian America—
            who have been emboldened by this campaign,
            and are now engaging in hate speech and violent acts,
                aimed at persons of other races, genders, religions.
        I’m not fear-mongering.
            I’m describing what is now happening. Daily.
            Read the newspaper.
        Persons have experienced real physical and emotional abuse
            from strangers on the street,
            because of who they are, and because of the election results.

    It is objectively true that many of our neighbors—many—
        immigrants (documented and undocumented),
        women (especially the far too many
            who have experienced sexual aggression),
        people of color,
        and more—
            are right now feeling anxious and stressful, at best,
            and at worst, are paralyzed by fear and dread
                and isolating themselves because of it.
    In part, they are afraid of the president-elect, and what he may do.
    But even more, they are afraid now,
        because it seems to them that half of their country,
            must not want them around.

    As followers of our Lord Jesus—a Jewish man
        who reached out and touched untouchable lepers,
        who related respectfully and deeply with women,
        who ate with social outcasts,
        who confronted the hatred and injustice
            inside his own religious structures—
        we have a Christian political mandate
            to notice those in our orbit
                who are experiencing fear and dread and isolation,
                and to move toward them in love and compassion
                    and a promise of protection.

    We must stand with those are suffering right now.
        We cannot join with other voices I have heard,
            that demean those who suffer.

    A couple days ago,
        one of our prominent state political leaders
            who is very public about his Christian faith,
        openly criticized Virginia Tech for sending a letter to students,
            offering support for anyone in pain
            or stressed or afraid after the election.
        The message was basically, “You lost. Deal with it.”

    That kind of sentiment,
        no matter what you think about someone’s party politics,
        has no place in a Christian political framework.
        If someone is suffering, we move toward them in love.
            We stand with those who can’t find their own voice.
            We welcome the outsider and stranger and alien.
            We protect the vulnerable,
                even if we pay dearly for doing so.

    I am a person of privilege.
        In every category I can check,
            I’m on the side of privilege.
                White. Male. Christian.
                Straight. Financially comfortable. American.
            The majority of people here
                could check the majority of those boxes.
            As a church, as a Christian political body,
                we are on the side of privilege.
        We barely need to give a thought to our own safety.

        I’m not saying we apologize for who we are.
        But let’s recognize that privilege has a price tag.
            The onus is on us.
            We have a greater obligation to respond
                to those who are not safe and secure.

    Our political vision as Mennonites has long made that clear.
    For generations, North American Mennonites have said
        we have a duty to respond with compassion to the suffering.
        After an earthquake or hurricane or tornado,
            when people feel most vulnerable and alone,
            we go out, in droves, to where they are,
                and offer our help and protection and compassion.
            We help them rebuild their lives.

    If the storm happens to be a political one,
        and it leaves extensive human suffering in its wake,
        why wouldn’t we do the same thing?

    I wonder what a collective church response might look like now,
        after this political earthquake?
        What needs to be rebuilt?
        And how can we come together to rebuild it?

Believe me, all of what I’ve said has nothing whatsoever to do
    with the competing political visions of Democrats and Republicans.
    There is plenty of room for healthy and vigorous political debate,
        about how best to provide for the public good,
        and what our government should do or not do.
    That debate should continue.

    I’m talking about a very different, and destructive, phenomena
        coming uniquely out of this election,
        fueled by hateful and violent speech and behavior.
    The church has a Christian political mandate,
        no matter how you voted,
            to now represent the healing presence of Jesus
            in the midst of the rubble left behind by this election.

The stewardship issue here is that we have given, by our generous God,
    a good and life-giving moral and political framework
        as kingdom citizens.
    Our constitutional charter, you might say,
        is in the gracious words of Jesus
            summarized in the Sermon on the Mount,
        and the gracious life, ministry, and deeds of Jesus
            which we are called to emulate.
    This social and spiritual identity and life-giving framework
        is a gracious gift we are called to receive,
            and then to steward, to manage.

    How we live our lives with each other, and in the world,
        is fundamentally a matter of stewardship.

I call us as a church to continue to do what we do best—
    to live in hope within a broken world.
    And keep articulating and demonstrating that hope.

    And keep up with our Christian communal practices
        that reinforce our alternate political identity.

    If this election has done anything for us as a church,
        it should be giving us a deeper longing and hunger
            for coming together and doing what we normally do—
        that is, gather regularly to worship in public,
            to listen to our body-shaping narrative from scripture,
            to sing and pray together,
            to break bread and share the cup of the new covenant,
            to share with and support one another,
        and then to go out into the world
            carrying that hope and that identity with us,
            accompanying the stranger and foreigner
            sitting with those who are fearful or alone or oppressed.

    I wonder how we might do that not just individually,
        in our day to day life,
        but collectively, as a church acting like a body,
            with our alternate political vision on full display.

    Let’s talk about that together.
        As a church community,
            as our smaller communities within the community.
        And see where that conversation leads us.
            And where the Holy Spirit leads us.

—Phil Kniss, November 13, 2016

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