The Politics of Jesus IV: Faith and State

This is the last in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus, that I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 30, 2016.

Mark 11:15-19

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last November, Saturday Night Live produced a short comedy video of a family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving.

The father, at the head of the table, begins the meal by saying, “Happy Thanksgiving everyone! To which everyone around the table responds with big smiles, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

The father continues, “I am so thankful that all of you are hear today.” The mom in turn says, “I am so thankful that I only burned the turkey a little bit.” Everyone laughs.

An aunt says, “You know what I am thankful for, that our governor is not going to let those refugees in here.” A cousin across the trouble looks horrified, and responds, “Oh my God.”

Words appear on the screen that say, “Thanksgiving with family can be hard.”

The conversation continues, the father saying, “You know, I heard the refugees are all ISIS in disguise.” The aunt jumps in again, “That’s true, I saw a ISIS at the A&P today when I was picking up the yams.” Disgusted by the direction the conversation is taking, the aforementioned cousin raises her voice in response, “No you didn’t, Aunt Cathy that was an Asian woman.”

Again words on the screen, “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs.

The dinner table conversation devolves further when “Aunt Cathy” asks the cousin’s black boyfriend why his “friends” keep antagonizing the police?

By now the table is erupting in angry exchanges, and the words on the screen read, “But there’s one thing that unites us all…”

A little girl leaves the table, walks across the room and turns on a CD player, and we hear the opening bars of Adele’s song, “Hello.” The table quiets immediately, and Aunt Cathy lip synchs, “Hello, it’s me…”

Everyone around the table stops fighting and joins in,

“I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet

To go over everything

They say that time’s supposed to heal ya

But…”

The doorbell rings, the music stops, grandparents arrive, and everyone resumes arguing in response to the grandmother’s comment that she saw “two transgenders at the airport.”

The little girl rolls her eyes, and again pushes play.

Again the table responds together with an even more impassioned lip synch performance of the Adele song.

One more time, fighting erupts, only to be reconciled again by Adele’s music.

Finally, all rancor overcome, the mom invites the smiling family, “Dig in everyone,” and the little girl turns to the camera and says, “Thanks Adele.”

SNL effectively drew upon the ubiquitous popularity of Adele’s hit a year ago to help us laugh at what are equally ubiquitous and painful experiences of division over politics.

That was a year ago and today we are even more painfully divided around the table and across the country. It will take more than Adele and a laugh to bring us together.

This is the fourth and final in the Politics of Jesus sermon series. Let me review the path we have trod together.

The first week I asked, “Was Jesus political, and if so in what way?”

I began with this definition, that to be political is to engage a process to order collective lives for the public good. I concluded that by this definition, Jesus was political. Just as Moses confronted Pharaoh to demand freedom for enslaved Israelites, so Jesus was confronting a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. By claiming the authority of God to stand with those who had been pushed to the margins, Jesus confronted powerful religious and political leaders and challenged the domination system. This was political, and this got him crucified.

The second week I took a look at “The Issues,” going through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. I concluded that the stories of Jesus’ life and the stories he told inform our perspective on any number of issues that are prominent in this year’s presidential campaign. Respect for women’s leadership, responding to poverty, recognizing the morality and value of those from other faiths and nations, treating the mentally ill and integrating them back into the community, healthcare for the most vulnerable, specifically women’s health, and confronting prejudice toward minority ethnic groups.

While the stories in the gospels are far from a prescription for public policy, they can, and I believe should be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God.

Then, last week Rev Kev delivered a much needed message of hope, reminding us that Jesus walks with us through all our discouragement and despair.

The title of this week’s sermon is Faith and State. Accepting that Jesus is political and, and that Jesus does prioritize certain issues over others, what does this require of us as his followers?

First, many Christians are quick to respond to political questions by invoking “the separation between church and state.” Just to be clear, this is part of the First Amendment of the Constitution, not the Bible. And these words are not meant to prohibit religious people from bringing their faith into politics, rather they emphasizes that the government cannot promote or prohibit religion. So we, as Christians, can and should apply our values in the political realm. We can and should reflect prayerfully on Jesus’ teachings, his priorities, when we vote and otherwise participate in the public sphere.

But that’s not all. The politics of Jesus leads us far beyond a vote in an election.

Again, I proposed that Jesus confronts a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. This confrontation climaxes when Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple.

I would suggest that a similar domination system comprised of political and economic elite continues to act to preserve wealth and power in the hands of a few today. Further, both major parties and their candidates represent these same powerful interests and perpetuate this unequal and unjust system. In fact, I would suggest that the entire electoral system and system of governance as it is currently structured and practiced preserves and maintains this unequal system.

So, if Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers then, who confronts these interests today?

Says the Apostle Paul, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” This is the way the Apostle Paul refers to the church. Notice he doesn’t say the church is like the body of Christ, or could be the body of Christ, if only we behaved differently or better. He says you are the body of Christ. So, who is confronting entrenched political and economic, and yes, religious interests today? That would be, should be, us, the church.

I recognize that this is daunting, especially imagining ourselves literally overturning tables. I can imagine the response should I invite everyone to meet at the Capitol in Hartford to overturn some tables. “Thank you, but I’m not really dressed for that.” “My son has a soccer game.” “I have to do laundry.”

But Jesus didn’t only confront the powerful through acts of civil disobedience, he did it by forming a particular kind of community that modeled an alternative way of being, by modeling the kingdom of God. As noted by Paul in his description of the body of Christ, this community required many and diverse members to function.

Over the years I have been fascinated by what are sometimes called intentional communities, Christian communities that seek to model the body of Christ, intentionally bringing diverse people under one roof to live, work, and worship together.

One powerful example of such communities are the L’Arche communities that provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. The first such community was founded by Jean Vanier in France in 1964, and there are now almost twenty in the United States including ones in Boston and on Long Island.

Another example, years ago I spent several days in an intentional Christian community called the Open Door in Atlanta, Georgia. Middle class Christians live together with the formerly homeless and incarcerated, worshiping and sharing communion, providing breakfast to day laborers, and fighting for fair housing practices in the Atlanta area. The commitment these folks showed to loving in each other and working for God together across profound differences made a lasting impact on my faith.

Communities like L’Arche and Open Door represent a certain ideal of discipleship for me, both confronting a system that excludes and oppresses while modeling an alternative. But I have never found my way to committing to such a life.

But as I pondered our role as the body of Christ here at First Church in Simsbury it occurred to me that we have a unique and invaluable opportunity to seek reconciliation, confronting a domination system that seeks to divide and exclude, while modeling an alternative.

I don’t really know how our congregation breaks down along liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican lines, except I know we have both in good numbers.

To some extent, simply gathering together on Sunday mornings and worshipping together, sharing communion together, pot-lucking and lip-synching together challenges the increasing divisiveness in our country.

We are a somewhat politically diverse community, but we would not yet qualify as an intentional Christian community that seeks to understand and love one another across our political differences. In fact, if we are intentional about anything, it would be avoiding any conversations about our political views.

What would it look like for us to develop and practice safe ways for us to talk to each other about our deeply held beliefs, to cultivate within ourselves an ability to really listen and hear one another, affirming always God’s grace for all?

I think it is pretty clear that the division and rancor we are experiencing in this country isn’t going to disappear on Election Day, no matter who wins.

After all the votes are counted we will be left with that angrily divided Thanksgiving table portrayed by Saturday Night Live. If only Adele was enough to unite us and bring peace. But in fact the one we need to bring us together is already at the table, Jesus Christ, and we are that body of Christ and individually members of it. Let us be intentional about modeling reconciliation for a divided and hurting world. For this is the politics of Jesus.

 

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