Monthly Archives: May 2016

Sermon for May 29, 2016: Preaching Politics

Listen here:

Religion and politics have an uneasy relationship.  In the United States, of course, we have a formal separation of church and state – and many people have taken that to mean that religious leaders should simply stay out of politics.  This is the consensus of most Episcopalians, many of whom frown on the preaching of politics from the pulpit.  But other Americans believe just as firmly that the same law that gives us the right to worship as we please also gives us the right (and the obligation) to vote based on our religious beliefs.  Those who argue against “politics in the pulpit,” suggest that the church is about reconciliation -and that the introduction of politics into church discourse can only lead to disharmony and separation rather than the peace and unity that people hope to find in church.  On the other hand, I would suggest that “every area of life needs a moral purpose and clear ethical boundaries, and no area of life needs it more desperately” than politics.[1]

The word “politics,” derives from Aristotle, who described a system by which affairs of a community or state can be determined.  The etymological root of the word “politics” -“pol”- means “smooth.”  It’s the same as the root of “polite.”  Thus, both politics and politeness have to do with smoothing relationships between people.  The goal of political discourse, then, is to work things out so people can live together in harmony -which suggests that politics do have a place in the church.

And it’s pretty hard to argue that Jesus wasn’t a political figure.  As some of you have heard me say before, Jesus did not die as a religious martyr – after all, the leaders of his own religion actually supported his death.  Rather, he died as a political prisoner, for suggesting, among other things, that it is okay to break a law if it benefits your fellow human beings to do so; that human leaders are subject to the laws of God, that prejudice and slavery are wrong, and that religious leaders should be held to the same standards of behavior as everyone else.

But politics and religion have a much deeper and long-term relationship than even Jesus’s struggles with the powers of his time.  We only heard part of today’s assigned reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is too bad, because we missed the most entertaining part of the story of the epic deity smackdown in which Elijah and the prophets of Baal go toe to toe to prove to the people whose god is the best god.  The showdown takes place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the period after the freeing of the Jews from Egyptian slavery.  The Israelite King Ahab has married Jezebel, a Baal worshipper, and God sends Elijah to straighten out the Israelites about who is the real God of Israel.  In an episode worthy of any reality t.v. show, Elijah kicks off the contest by taunting Baal’s prophets to call their god to see if he will come and show himself.  In the part we didn’t read, as time goes by and Baal doesn’t show our hero Elijah starts trash-talking Baal’s prophets, suggesting that their god must be deaf, lost, out-of-town, or has fallen asleep.  When Baal’s time is up, Elijah calls on his God – our God, who not only shows up, but promptly sets his own burnt offering on fire and then consumes it in front of everyone.  Now that’s style!

It’s also power, and if you read a bit further in Kings, you will find the God of Israel exercising that power.  Having established his superiority to Baal, God demands that Elijah repudiate Ahab and crown a new king who will worship the God of Israel – and him alone.  Elijah’s action eventually leads to the banishment and endangerment of the prophet and eventually to war.  In today’s world the endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders is commonplace and don’t lead to banishment, but it’s likely that he would probably be fined and potentially lose his preaching license for breaking the Internal Revenue Tax Code for religious institutions by endorsing a specific candidate from the pulpit.

I can’t imagine an Episcopal priest going that far in today’s political world.  But the truth is that we preach politics all the time – because our job is to interpret the holy scriptures in a way that helps us determine how to live our lives not only here in church, but also in the real world – the one in which we are in relationship with both those who believe as we do and those who don’t.  So if we think of “politics” as being about organizing our lives together in a way that best respects and assists all of our citizens, then everything that we hear in church – and certainly everything that Jesus said – has political implications.

A recent Pew Foundation report suggests that there is actually a hunger for politics from the pulpit, with 49 percent of Americans indicating that they want pastors to talk about politics.[2]  These people are seeking spiritual guidance – and many preachers are willing to give it to them.  We don’t have to look very far to see the dangers of preaching politics.  The political trajectory of the so-called religious right has created a climate of divisiveness and fear that I believe has shattered rather than increased the faith of many people.  Using scripture to frighten and control God’s people rather than to enlighten and sustain them – as a bully’s club rather than a shepherd’s staff – is not just wrongheaded but sinful.

The same is true of those who oppose all religion.  Groups like the Openly Secular movement are using this contentious election season to argue that “the world would be more sane if all religions, all primitive superstitions, were abandoned.”[3]  Many members of these organizations do not differentiate between Christians, seeing those who “believe that the Bible is a book of facts and not myths,”[4] and others who thoughtfully and prayerfully consider the relationship between science and faith as one credulous collective.

The problem with both groups is their unwillingness to attempt to actually know others – to figure out how to live with them instead of forcing them to live the way we think they should.  But that is what happens when we make judgments based on what we believe we are entitled to instead of what we deserve.  It is what happens when the love of power seeks to overcome the power of love – when hubris trumps humility.

The actions of the centurion from today’s gospel, though, show us a different way.  Despite the fact that he exercises more human political power than Jesus could ever have, the centurion recognizes Jesus’s spiritual authority over him, and by acting on that belief he saves the one he loves.  The centurion’s action is a political one – and not his first.  Based on the text, it seems likely that this particular Roman officer was of Israelite heritage – a not unheard of situation, but a dicey one in which he could have lost his prime position if he was seen as pushing a pro-Israelite agenda too far.  And he had already built a synagogue, making him beloved to the Jewish elders.  But the centurion takes the risk, because he recognizes that his earthly authority means nothing in the face of Jesus’s power – because human power is always limited.

But God’s power is unlimited and she does not use her power to give us what we deserve; God uses his power to give us what we need.  And the power God is not only unlimited, it is, by its very nature, merciful and just.  When humans judge one another, we are often thoughtless, cruel, and selfish.  But, according to the psalmist, when God judges us, we should rejoice, because God will judge the world with righteousness and truth.

That’s because God is rightWe only think we are.  This human tendency toward “rightness” – toward a rigid and unshakeable belief in our own irrefutable spiritual correctness both permeates current American culture and is as ancient as fear and doubt themselves.  This is the corruption of the gospel that Paul is talking about when he rails against the Galatians for “perverting” the gospel of Christ.  He is not angry at them for turning to a “different” gospel; he believes that there is no such thing.  Rather, he is furious at those he sees as confusing these fledgling Christians about the meaning of the gospel that they have already received -at those who seek the approval of human beings by preaching human politics – the politics of coercion, judgment, and fear.  Paul’s message is simple and straightforward: using the gospel of Christ to garner human power is not serving Christ.  That kind of politics has no place in any pulpit.

But the foundational ideas of the true gospel – justice, mercy, and peace – are political, and they have everything to do with how we organize and live our lives together –everything to do with our politics.  And by not preaching these values we allow others who are willing to preach politics to pervert the gospel of Christ – and that, according to Paul, is sin indeed.  Human politics are not God’s politics. Human politics divide; God unifies.  Scripture tells us again and again that God’s will is that we live together in love -and God has provided us with the tools to do so.  Our job is to be wise, courageous and faithful by applying the wisdom of God to the politics of human beings.  If we can do this we will have nothing less than the power to bring about the kingdom of God – and in that place we will indeed live together in a relationship governed by love and grace.  Amen.

[1]Greg Forster (2014), “Politics in the Pulpit? Yes and No,” Patheos, www.patheos.com/blogs/missionwork/author/forster/.

[2]Pew Foundation, (2014), www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religiouns-influence-waning.

[3]John Davidson, (May 15, 2016), “An entertainer comes out at 74 – as openly secular,” SF Chronicle, E5.

[4]Ibid.

Sermon for May 1, 2016: We are enough (Preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley)

Listen to sermon here:

The church is having an identity crisis – and like any teenager whose hormones are running their lives, we have been doing some pretty wild things in the service of trying to figure out who we are.  This became clear to me after I recently read a satirical article entitled, “Fifty proven ways to revive mainline churches” and realized that many Episcopal parishes I know have actually attempted quite a few of these tongue-in-cheek suggestions, including holding Bible study in the local pub, working the phrase “social justice” into every other announcement, and trying to tone down all that “Jesus-talk.”[1]  Although, in all fairness, I would like to point out that I only colored my hair to match the liturgical calendar once – and it was Pentecost, after all.  But it cannot be denied that the church as a whole is exhibiting behavior that looks a lot like teenage rebellion.

That’s because teenagers aren’t the only ones who struggle with the task of figuring out who they are and what they should be doing with their lives.  “An identity crisis may occur at any time in your adult years when you’re faced with a challenge to your sense of self.”[2]  I think it’s fair to argue that that’s what’s happening in the Episcopal Church right now.  On the one hand, we’re no longer the denomination of the status-quo supporting, white, middle-class, but we’re also (by and large) not the tattooed, profanity-using, skinny-jean wearing iconoclasts some people think we need to become.  Personality theory says that successfully riding out the rough waves of identity development requires a balance of two things: a strong sense of “commitment” to a belief system and the active questioning of those beliefs by experimenting with other ideas and behaviors.  So if the church is having an identity crisis, it stands to reason that we’re not doing enough of one of those things – either we’re not committed enough to “traditional” biblical Christian teaching – or are we not trying hard enough to introduce new ideas and worship trends to our services.  Are we low on commitment or experimentation?

Maybe we’re just not getting the balance right.  Personality theorists would tell us that we actually need to be “high” on both.  Faith, after all, is synonymous with the firm sense of belief that identifies people as “high” on commitment – but the church also needs the spirit of exploration and interrogation that gives true religion its redemptive power.  It is what we do with our faith that matters, because it is in sharing with those who are different than we are that we learn and grow.

There is, says Krista Tippett, “a lot of beauty and wisdom and inquiry and virtue about critical life-giving aspects [of the church] that other institutions [can’t] bring into conversation” with spiritual seekers.[3]   At the same time, those of us who have that strength of commitment founded on a lifetime of church teaching need to be confronted with the moral imagination and integrity of those who are not religious – the so-called “nones” – because they question the very idea of religions that say they speak in the name of God but whose voices are “strident, hateful, [and] polarizing.” [4]  The truth is that for both individuals and institutions, only those that both maintain a deep and clear sense of who they are so that they can examine and evolve that truth can fully live into the promise of their identity.

This means talking about our faith.  It means inviting people in.  It means proclaiming the good news – just as Luke tells us Paul did in ancient Macedonia.  It may feel intrusive.  It may be embarrassing.  It may even be frightening – but knowing what it means to be Christian means opening our hearts to others so they can open their hearts to God.  C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest plain-speaker about Christianity in the 20th century, said, “The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians.  There are people…who are slowly ceasing to be Christians, but who still call themselves by that name…[and] there are other people who are slowly becoming Christian, though they do not yet call themselves so.  There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are [already] his in a much deeper sense than they…understand.”[5]

It is up to us to help them to understand this attraction and to know it for what it is: a longing for God.  Like the psalmist, we must pray that God will let his ways be known upon the earth so that all people may stand in awe of him.  But we can’t just pray.  We have to actually provide some glimpses of what it is to live in a world fully inhabited by God – what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God.

And the kingdom of God is not built of churches – or at least not church buildings.  God has never asked people to build churches.  God asks us to be churches.  We get so obsessed with things like average Sunday attendance and color-coordinated linens, and whether the grass is growing that I sometimes wonder if Frederick Buechner wasn’t right when he said, “the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too.  Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place” – because, really, that’s all we should need.

John’s revelation of the New Jerusalem – the holy city – the kingdom of God – has no temple in it, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty.”  It is a place of light and life and healing – a place where all is holy and all is good – including the people.  It is a place where nothing is accursed – not because the bad people will be sent to another place – but because all people will be redeemed.  Everyone will be good.  They won’t be able to help it – because “everyone there is filled full…with goodness as a mirror is filled with light.”[6]

Many people have interpreted today’s gospel reading to mean that Jesus (and, by default, God) will only love you if you obey a certain set of rules.  And lots and lots of people believe they can tell you what those rules are – and what will happen to you if you don’t obey them.  But Jesus doesn’t say, “Those who love me have to keep my laws.” Jesus tells his disciples that those who love him will keep his word.  In other words, if you love Jesus, you cannot help but keep his word.  You won’t be able to break his word.  And his word is “love.”

The kingdom of God is not about who is right and who is wrong; it is about learning that in God there is no wrong.  Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with some unpassable test or impossible standard.  He leaves them with the Holy Spirit – with a counselor – not to haunt them, but to advocate for them – not only to remind them of Jesus’s way, but also to help them to continually grow in grace – to recognize the good and reject the bad – to bring the kingdom of God to these people in this place.  He leaves them both the wisdom and the room to grow – to change – and to change the world.

That is the identity of the church – to provide both a foundation of wisdom and the opportunity for growth.  The identity of the church is as a community where we can share both our confidence and our fears – a gathering of spiritual seekers who together invite the sacred presence of the Holy Spirit to be among them – a congregation of individuals blessed with the deep peace of Jesus.  It is – we are -the bedrock of the kingdom of God.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let those you love be afraid.  It will be enough.  It is enough.  It is, in fact, everything.  AMEN.

[1]Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, April 28, 2016, “Fifty proven ways to revive mainline churches (satire),” Religious Church News.

[2]Susan Krauss Whitbourne, “Are you having an Identity Crisis: 4 key ways to identify your identity,” Psychology Today, March 3, 2012.

[3] Krista Tippett in Boorstein, Michelle, (April 6, 2016), “Acts of Faith: Some are writing obituaries for American religion, Krista Tippet is documenting its revolution,” The Washington Post.

[4]Ibid.

[5]C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity.”

[6]Ibid.