Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happy Holidays

Every year around this time, I feel compelled to write a post like this. I guess it is because I find Facebook friends posting things like the image shown above. It really needs a "damn it" at the end, doesn't it?

I don't ever share such posts, because I do not agree! Not at all!

Here is a post that I would be proud to have written. I particularly like these points:

1. ’Season’s greetings,” refers to that broad expanse of time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Muliple holidays=holiday season. It’s nothing against Jesus, really.

Also, Christians are not the only people of faith who celebrate a high holy day around the winter solstice. Christianity is a global faith with a regrettable lack of global awareness. “Happy Holidays” is a simple means of acknowledging that some of our neighbors–even some of our friends and relatives–are also in the midst of living their faith. And let’s face it: the “this is mine” attitude surrounding December 25 feels less like Christmas cheer, and more like Black Friday hoarding. Just sayin…

7. Speaking of shopping–if you are bothered by all the secular expressions posted around malls and big box stores this season, might i gently suggest that you spend less of your Christmas season at the freakin mall? If you don’t like the signage, spend more time serving the poor, going to worship, getting out in nature, and spending time with the people you love. I’m pretty sure the birthday boy would be all for it.

8. Life is too short to worry so much about what everyone else is saying and doing. Apply this to other areas of life and civilized culture, as well.

9. When you get right down to it, the best way to “keep Christ in Christmas” is to model Christlike behavior. Jesus was for feeding people. Jesus was for healing and compassion. Jesus was for getting a bunch of loud, messy, mismatched people around a table and having a big dinner. Not a moment of his life did he spend trying to get his name up on a sign.

Holidays is a truncation of "holy days." The people who are offended by the word holiday do realize this, don't they? And even if one of those holy days happens to be Christ-Mass, there are others in December too, aren't there, festivals of light that our neighbors and friends celebrate. I just feel no need, ZERO need, to rub my Jewish friends' noses in the fact that it is Christ-Mass. In fact, those people are Jesus' relatives. I don't think he would do it. It's rude. And love is not arrogant or rude. Same goes for people of other faith traditions, and those with no faith tradition who still try to be a little kinder this time of year. Can't those of us who bear the name of Christ find it in ourselves to be a bit more kinder this time around? A bit more humble, and neighborly? Wasn't it Jesus himself who commanded us to "love our neighbor?"

There really is no WAR on Christ-Mass. There is WAR in lots of places in the world, real wars with killing and everything. We are called in those places, as followers of the Prince of Peace, to be instruments of peace. To be kind. To be gentle. To love our neighbors. To love even our enemies.

Happy Holy Days...EVERYONE. No exceptions!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Day

Before the tryptophan kicks in, I want to invite you to go with me on a journey—back to the region around the Sea of Galilee, almost two thousand years ago. Sometimes it helps for us to step back and listen again (as if for the first time) to this man named Jesus, who comes preaching and teaching and proclaiming the “good news” of the Kingdom of God throughout that region.

The Kingdom of God,” Jesus tells all who have ears to hear “is both already here and still coming.” He is a healer who cures diseases and casts out many demons—a person committed to making people whole. As his ministry begins to take shape, word about him begins to spread and the crowds begin to gather around him. When they do, he takes his disciples away: they go and hike up a mountain that overlooks the Sea of Galilee. And there, he sits down. That’s the first-century posture of a Jewish teacher—the equivalent of a preacher in the pulpit or a teacher at her smart-board. His friends gather around him as he begins to speak. (Mt. 5:1) What he says to them has come to us as “The Sermon on the Mount,” which makes up a big chunk of St. Matthew’s Gospel as he has given the story to us.

This core of Jesus’ teaching ministry needs to be heard anew in every generation. To do that we are called to come away from the crowds of our consumer society, in order to be still and listen to the words of life he speaks.  They are sometimes difficult words to hear because they are words that turn the worlds we have grown accustomed to upside down. Yet at the same time, they are words that begin to put things right again: words that call us back to who we really are and toward who we are meant to become.

Jesus says that the poor are blessed. He says that those who mourn are too. Not that they will be some day” but that they are, present tense. He says that the meek will inherit the land, and that those who hunger and thirst will be satisfied. He says that the merciful, and the clean of heart, and the peacemakers will be called “children of God.” (Mt. 5:3-10) These beatitudes (which is just a fancy Latin way of saying “blessings”) challenge us to become a people after God’s own heart. Jesus insists that we—ordinary common folk, fishermen and tax collectors and risk managers and nurses and social workers and teachers and dentists—are called to be a community that is “salt” and “light” for the world. (Mt. 5:13ff)  That we are called to grow together by hearing, reading, marking, and learning his words and then inwardly digesting them until they become something more than words on the page of a Bible or even on our lips. Until by God’s mercy they become a way of life for us. When Jesus says things like “blessed are the peacemakers” – we are meant to gobble these words up along with our turkey and stuffing and inwardly digest them, until our lives bear witness to this truth and we become instruments of peace. Even at family gatherings.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us an ethic that is rooted in the old covenant given by Moses at Sinai, and yet is recast in a way that is both more liberating and more demanding. More demanding: because love of enemies and turning the other cheek and going a second mile and giving someone who wants your coat the shirt off your back as well does not come easily or naturally to most of us. Yet liberating: because Jesus doesn’t offer a new set of rules so much as a way of life toward a newer and cleaner heart. He calls us to live bolder and more creative and compassionate lives that lead to reconciliation and transformation and new possibilities. He asks us to live in such a way that our lives become signs of the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.

On the way to that end, Jesus speaks of spiritual disciplines—of holy habits like fasting and stewardship and prayer. As I hear him, he lowers his voice almost to a whisper, offering a prayer that to this very day binds Christians together even when we cannot perceive it: Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Protestant and Anglican—traditionalists, evangelicals, moderates and progressives. It is a simple prayer that is not owned by any one group, but shared by all of us who bear his name:

            Our father in heaven, hallowed is your name…
                        your kingdom come
                        your will be done,
                        on earth, as in heaven… (Mt. 6:7ff)

Then after all these words, on that same hill looking out over the Sea of Galilee, with the disciples still listening intently and maybe with the birds singing and some flowers right nearby, Jesus at last speaks the words appointed for this Thanksgiving day:  

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air…consider the lilies of the field…seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. 

It is an old wisdom that by God’s mercy we live into one day at a time, and always with God’s help. It is a wisdom we will never fully realize on this side of Paradise. But these are words, nevertheless, that call us to continue together on a journey.  Look. Consider. Seek. 

Look at the birds.  You don’t have to preach to them as our buddy St. Francis did; just keep an eye on them. Pay attention to them. A soaring eagle, a blue heron, even the bird that has given its life to take center stage on our tables today.  To look at the birds and to really see God’s good creation is to remember that we are part of that circle of life. When we open our eyes and look at the birds we are able to see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

Developing the discipline of looking with wide-open eyes at the world around us—not judging or seeking to control it, but just to see it, is a form of prayer. I know that when I start to feel stressed and overwhelmed—when I become anxious—the first thing that goes is my vision, and I can become literally blind to what is right before my very eyes. There is nothing magical or terribly mystical about this. Nor do Christians have no monopoly on this. It’s just true. It is something we tend to do better at as children, and can lose in the midst of the rat race we sometimes confuse for living. Have you ever watched a little child chasing the seagulls along the beach? To look at the birds is the first step, I think, to healing the anxiety that inflicts us.  

Consider the flowers. I’m married to a person who sees beauty in dandelions. I have to confess I’m not quite there, but she figures that the difference between a weed and a flower is in the eye of the beholder and I guess that is right. Flowers call us to pay attention to the beauty of the earth. To consider something moves into the right hemisphere of our brains: beyond data and information to that place of amazement and wonder and curiosity and awe. Now this time of year in New England you might think, “well, we have to wait to consider the flowers.” But maybe not. Consider them right now: sleeping under the earth and waiting for the snows to fly, and then for spring to come again as it always does: waiting for warm earth and new life and new possibilities. The crocuses will bloom again and when they do we will indeed consider their beauty as they insist once again that life is stronger than death and that a long New England winter never gets the last word.   

Finally, seek the Kingdom of God. If you seek God first, then the rest of life really does fall into place. That is really the theological point of stewardship education, of reminding one another that this is just as true whether we are talking about our time, our talent, or our treasure. But we have to practice it until we start to believe it. 

There’s an old camp object lesson about this. You take a big pot and you pour into it all the little things of your life: the details of soccer and dance and the countless events that fill our days. You pour those in as sand. And then you add in some pebbles: the bigger stuff like family and friendships. Guess what. Already the pot is too full. These things won’t fit—not to mention the largest commitment of all—the larger rock that is meant to represent God in our lives. That object lesson reminds us all how easy it is to fill our lives up and have no room left for God.

But if you reverse the order: if you put the first things in first—if you start with the big thing and then the medium sized ones and then pour the sand, guess what? It all fits! The smaller things find enough room as the sand fills in the space around the larger stones. It’s amazing and it’s true in real life as well. Seeking the Kingdom first is about getting our priorities straight. When we get bogged down with the small stuff, we have no room left for what matters.

Today many of us gather together with family to ask the Lord’s blessing. I have yet to meet a perfectly “functional” family. We need to remember that we are not called to be perfect, but to be faithful; and to remember that we are—each of us—beloved of God. We have a choice as we gather with friends and family. We can find fault and collect grievances and fixate on negative behaviors—our own and those of others. All of which serve only to fuel anxiety and worry. Or we can look, consider, and seek.Choose wisely!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bountiful Sowers, Bountiful Reapers

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  (II Corinthians 9:6)

St. Paul was many things, but "clear and to the point" was usually not one of them. So I love how this verse, written to the first-century Christians in Corinth, begins. Paul is, at least in this one instance, not in the midst of some long run-on sentence. He just hits the nail on the head. These words sound more like Jesus than Paul to my ear. Paul tends to prefer complex rhetoric, while Jesus loved agricultural metaphors: seeds being planted, grain being produced, the harvest being plentiful. It’s hard to argue with the metaphor here, unless you are talking about cucumbers or zucchini, which seem to be bountiful even when they are sparingly sown.

It’s not a particularly Christian truth, nor a matter of doctrine like the Trinity. It’s something any farmer can tell you, even an agnostic farmer. If you sow your seeds sparingly you will reap far less than if you sow those seeds more bountifully. It’s just how the world works. In the Old Testament, the writer of Ecclesiastes says something very similar: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1) Or as your mother might have said, “what goes around comes around.” Because there is a kind of “karma” when it comes to giving. I don’t think that means to suggest we give so that we’ll get back even more or that giving comes with a money-back guarantee. Rather, it just seems that when you are around grateful people with open hands and hearts, the household and the neighborhood are healthier. It's better to live in a neighborhood where you can borrow a cup of sugar in a pinch than to live among grinches and tightwads with clenched fists. Life just seems to flow better where giving and thanksgiving unleash gratitude, and that is contagious. Paul goes on to write: 

You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

When we hold onto our stuff and clutch it as if it were “our own”—then we find ourselves living increasingly in a world defined by fear. Alternatively, when we let go, when we open our hands and our hearts to the needs of others and sow bountifully, the world around us is changed. The Reign of God breaks in, as the world within us is changed as well. We begin to see things differently, through  new set of lenses. We see abundance. So make up your minds, Paul says. He refuses to beg, or to compel them to do this thing because as a pastor he knows that you can’t compel generosity or force people to share—not even two-year olds. Each of us must make up our own mind about how we will choose to live our lives and how we will relate to our stuff. 

What does all of this have to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans and turkey and football? Well, you can go through this holiday, if you choose without making any connections at all. Thanksgiving can be the purest of secular days and I don’t mean that as all bad. It is not like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost or All Saints Day. Everybody gets to eat turkey tomorrow and share in the bounty of the harvest: Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and agnostics can join together. Most of our tables will include a mix of Republicans, Independents, Democrats and those famous "undecideds" who would prefer not to discuss politics. 

It is not a particularly Christian day. And yet, this theme of giving and thanksgiving does take us to the very heart of the Christian faith. Meister Eckhart once said: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it will be enough.” He knew that prayer is far more than asking God to do things, far more than confessing our sins. The journey of faith begins with gratitude. 

Back in the 1980s, the claim was famously made that greed is good. Well that was a lie and we are now reaping, thirty years later, the seeds that were sown then. Greed is not good. Generosity is good. Glad and generous hearts are good, because they produce thanksgiving and that ripples out to our neighbors and ultimately to God. And when those seeds are planted, not sparingly but bountifully—the world is good, and the harvest is indeed plentiful. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Figs and Fig Trees

This past weekend, next weekend when we celebrate The Reign of Christ and yet again on the first weekend in December, The First Sunday of Advent, the readings appointed all focus our attention on endings. The fancy Biblical word is eschatology - words about "the end of the world."

In my sermon this past weekend, on Mark's "little apocalypse," I focused on Jesus' words that cataclysmic signs of the end be seen as "birth pangs." As I hear those words, Jesus is inviting his disciples to be not afraid, to live as people of hope. In two weeks we'll hear a very similar metaphor to my ears. Jesus tells his followers in the twenty-first chapter of Luke's Gospel to consider the fig tree: how when they sprout leaves you know that summer is near. So, too, he suggests, when the earth seems under distress and the end is near, know the Kingdom of God is upon us, that it's like a fig tree bearing fruit.


One of my parishioners met me at the door yesterday after my sermon, which she told me she liked and agreed with. But...

I knew where she was going and I was not insulted; I have the same "but." If the world around is coming unglued, and yet we act as if this is great stuff--birth pangs and figs on a tree, are we living in denial of the realities of our call to be good stewards of the earth? If the oceans are rising and the weather is out of control because we have failed the earth, are we missing "signs" from God to "wake up" and to love our Mother Earth if the preacher just keeps saying, "no worries?"

I think as we get ready for Advent, it is helpful to distinguish between denial, wishful thinking, and hope. Denial is about putting our heads in the sand: about refusing to see what is before our very eyes. Wishful thinking, however, assumes we can do nothing and God will take care of it. To my way of thinking it is not very different from denial.

Hope, though, is different. Hope empowers us to act. What I wanted to be heard to say in my sermon (and what I think Jesus says when he speaks to his disciples about "the end") is that we must not be paralyzed by our fears. We are meant to "wake up" and "keep alert" and act like faithful disciples. It is irresponsible of us to abdicate responsibility: our Baptismal Covenant calls upon us to live our faith and to do the work God would have us to do.

I realize there is a paradox here but I think it is a paradox embodied in the life of St. Francis, who is said to have been hoeing a row of beans when someone asked him what he would do if the world was to come to and end tomorrow. His response was said to have been that he should like to finish hoeing that row of beans.

We are meant to do the work God has given us to do, as individuals and as a community of faith. We are meant to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. To love one another. If we live in fear of "the end" we can become distracted from that calling; and even paralyzed. I think when Jesus talks about birth pangs and fig trees he means to call us back to the main thing: whether the end is coming soon or is a long way off, to live as God's people, as a people of hope who are empowered for the work of ministry.

Acorns and Oak Trees

Yesterday's post - "Birth Pangs"- was an edited manuscript of most of the sermon I preached yesterday at St. Francis Church. I began that sermon, however, with a parable that seemed to strike a chord with many who heard it.

The story comes from Jacob Needleman, a philosophy professor at San Francisco State University. It comes from his book Lost Christianity and is reprinted here for those interested:

Once upon a time, in a not-so far-away land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree.  Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses.  There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.”  There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree.  There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird.  He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns.  And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale.  Pointing upward at the tree, he said. “We … are … that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?”

“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground … and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid!  Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Birth Pangs

In these last weeks of November as the days are getting shorter and darker in the northern hemisphere, our attention in the appointed readings this week and next and then into the first week of Advent are all about the signs of endings that are all around us. Today's gospel reading from Mark's "little apocalypse" (Mark 13) falls into this category. I have never lived in the southern hemisphere but I often wonder how these readings "play" in Australia or Argentina, where the days are getting longer and warmer. Here in New England it seems almost like a cruel joke, as we move toward the shortest day of the year, to be talking about signs in the heavens of endings. Yet for an Easter people, signs of endings awaken hope, because even at the grave we make our song—alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. It is from endings that we discover new beginnings.

So in today’s gospel reading we see the Jesus and his disciples - small-town fishermen - arriving in the big city of Jerusalem. ”My goodness,” they say to Jesus, “look at these great big buildings!” Jesus remembers his history, though. I don’t think he’s so much making a prediction about the future so much as he knows that nothing lasts forever. The definition of any created thing is that it has a beginning and an end; no exceptions, save for God alone.

Six centuries before Jesus’ birth, the people of Jerusalem had felt invincible. And then the Babylonian army marched into town and reduced their big buildings to rubble. That event, of course, marked the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Human resiliency is a very good thing. But the downside of “moving on” is that people forget and start to suffer from amnesia, and six hundred years is a long time. For perspective on that, you have to go back way past the founding of this country and back even further, past the time when the Pilgrims arrived on these shores—even past the time when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, which was only about 520 years ago.

So as Jesus and his friends are walking around the streets of Jerusalem and looking at this amazing Temple, it has been six hundred years since it had been rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. It feels like has been there forever, and that it will be there forever.  And that is reassuring when it comes to faith: we like to think that in the midst of a changing world it will remain rock solid.

Yet within just four decades after this conversation took place, the Romans will march into Jerusalem and destroy that second Temple just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first one. In fact that second Temple will never be rebuilt, and all that remains to this day, two thousand years later, is the west wall—more commonly called the Wailing Wall. In fact, by the time Mark’s Gospel is written down that event is only a year or two away.

Even so, as I said I think the point is not so much that Jesus is making a future prediction about the exact date when the Temple will be destroyed and definitely not about the end of the world as we know it. Rather, I think that he is inviting his followers in every generation to consider the fact that nothing lasts forever. How then, do we navigate seasons of transition? Big buildings make us think we are secure and maybe even invincible. But we know better, don’t we? The biggest of buildings, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century lower Manhattan, can come down before our very eyes. And when that happens, when things we thought were “permanent” are exposed as transient, they can leave fear and terror in their wake. What do we do with such emotions? What do we do when the very foundations of our faith are shaken?

What Jesus does in today’s gospel reading, as I hear him, is to re-frame that question. Endings, he insists, always hold within them the possibilities for new beginnings. That is not an act of denial; it’s a leap of faith. The loss that Israel will experience with the destruction of the temple is real. Yet Jesus says within that loss one can find the “birth pangs” of a new creation. Instead of a Temple made with human hands, he points toward a community that will be his resurrected Body. But to get there will mean going through Good Friday.

Most of us prefer security to faith. Big buildings make us feel secure in the same way that big 401-K’s do. We think if we can make them bigger and stronger they will protect us. But that is an illusion. In the absence of absolute security there is a clear but difficult choice: we can live in fear or we can live in hope.  Jesus is inviting us to embrace our vulnerabilities, and yet to live by faith, trusting that endings are also signs of something new. That they are birth pangs: signs of God's new creation.

Cataclysmic events like hurricanes and earthquakes expose our precariousness. And yet ultimately—and I don’t say this without compassion but simply as the truth—such events also expose our trust as misplaced in the first place. Because our trust is not in buildings or institutions or in any created thing, but in the one true God who was and is and will be: the Lord our God whom we are called to love with our whole heart, and to have no other gods before us.

In the past few decades the institutional church has experienced quite a few hits. It sometimes feels as if the foundations are shaking and the buildings may yet come crashing down. The response in many quarters tends to be one of high anxiety. You can see it in the faces of clergy and bishops especially. But notice what Jesus says—because it’s as true today as it was 2000 years ago. In the face of anxiety people crave easy answers. In the face of anxiety, people are led astray because everyone wants to speak in the name of Christ: “I am he.”  There will always those who peddle false religion by tapping into that anxiety. So do not believe those who offer easy answers about what God is up to in the midst of signs of endings. Rather, stand tall and keep alert and be strong.That is the consistent advice Jesus gives; not to try to "crack some code" and find a date...but to be faithful in the midst of adversity. Even when it feels like the world is coming unglued! Such moments are the beginning of the birth pangs.
What is true on a macrocosmic scale is just as true in our life stories. Someone we love dies and our faith is shaken. Or we go through a painful divorce that we think will never end. It is hard in the midst of such life experiences to see them as birth pangs that are leading to something new when we feel weary and disillusioned and in pain. Yet we are an Easter people, and to be an Easter people means that we are a people who believe in the resurrection not just of Jesus 2000 years ago, but in the ways that old things are being made new even today—even now, before our very eyes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Homily for Election Day Communion Service at St. Francis Church

Readings: Isaiah 26:1-8; Psalm 47; Romans 13:1-10; Mark 12:13-17 

Negative campaigning in this country goes back a long way. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two giants in 1776 who helped this nation gain our independence from Great Britain. But by 1800, partisan bickering had so distanced the pair that for the first and last time in U.S. history, a president found himself running against his vice president. Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."  (Those words didn’t make the cut when they were looking for words to engrave on the Memorial!) Adams, in return, called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." And so it went: Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington jumped in, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind." (Click here for more.) 

I am not naïve, and we should not be naïve, about how bitter partisan politics can be, and probably always has been. There may be more money and more technology today—and way longer campaigns—but polarization and division are nothing new. The human heart and the lust for power are much the same as they have always been. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! 

Why, then are we gathered here tonight? If there is nothing new under the sun and if what has always been will always be, then what are we doing here tonight?

Perhaps some of us have come to secretly say a prayer that God will help the candidate we voted for today to win. I cannot censor anyone’s prayers tonight, but for my own part (and even though I definitely have some strong opinions of my own) I am trying not to tell God how to do God’s job. I encourage you, then, when it comes to the results that will be reported tonight or tomorrow morning or (God help us in a week or two!) to pray the prayer that never fails: “thy will be done.”  

For me, the main reason for being here is not about who carries Ohio tonight. When I saw on Facebook back in September that a Presbyterian friend of mine was doing this, I knew I wanted us to do it here and I knew that even if none of you showed up, I needed to do this. And while I do know partisan politics is nothing new, I feel that for the good of our nation we must build some bridges and heal our divisions. And that the Church can play a role in doing that; that we must play a role in doing that—and that it can begin right here on this very nigh as we embrace our call to be “instruments of God’s peace.” In so doing we are taken to the very heart of our vocation to be salt and light and yeast in the world.

What the Bible has to say about faith and politics is a mixed bag. Most of the time, ancient Israel lived under foreign oppression and domination. The names of the imperial powers changed: Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome—but the experiences were pretty much the same. In the brief period when Israel got to try their own hand at self-governance under King Saul and David and Solomon, the truth is that they didn’t do much better. They learned that it was harder than they thought, and that even great leaders like David did not always deliver as promised. (After all, it was the giant-killer/ shepherd-boy who ended up seducing his neighbor’s wife while he was off at the front lines, and then having his political cronies cover it up.) 

In the midst all of that, there emerged voices in the Old Testament who insisted that they spoke on behalf of YHWH, that they had a “word of the Lord” for God’s people. They insisted that YHWH cared most of all about the poor and vulnerable—the “widow and orphan,” as they put it. Isaiah and Amos and Micah and Jeremiah and Hosea and Joel stood up to speak on behalf of those whose voices were being silenced, imagining a future messianic age where, as we heard tonight “the gates would be open, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith might enter in.” The playing field, they said, would be leveled and those who trample on the poor and needy would be brought low. They imagined the world otherwise, and articulated how that world might look like if God’s people truly loved God and neighbor. When he was a little boy, Jesus’ mother sang to him a very similar prophetic song and out in the wilderness John the Baptizer sounds a lot like Isaiah as he worked to prepare the way and make the path straight in the desert. 

The reading from Romans has a different perspective, written in a different time and place. Paul is writing to a small minority of first-century Christians living in Rome, right in the “belly of the beast.” He tells them they should be subject to the governing authorities, and pray for them and keep their noses clean and pay their taxes and pray for the emperor. Now if we had more time tonight I might say a few words about liberation theology and remind you about some Christians going all the way back to Rome itself who didn’t listen to Paul’s counsel here, and who found other texts in other parts of the Bible that encouraged them to stand up against unjust, unrestrained power. We call them martyrs and saints. Even so, in this particular text (in spite of what sounds like Paul compromising with the powers-that-be) I think there is a word for us tonight: we are called to focus on being the Church in the midst of imperial ambitions. Whoever wins tonight, whoever governs this nation going forward, we will in fact continue to pray for our president—even if we aren’t personally happy with the results. They will need our prayers to deal with the difficult problems we face as a nation. Moreover, however you voted today, you and I as the Church are called to work together for something bigger than partisan politics: the Kingdom of God. We do that, Paul says, by loving God and by loving our neighbor. That is how we fulfill Torah.  

Finally, there is this great scene in the Temple between Jesus and the temple authorities for us to consider tonight. It’s a tricky text to interpret, and it often gets misquoted and misused. Notice it begins with the Pharisees and Herodians trying to trap Jesus. Keep in mind also that they have made peace with imperial Rome—depending on your perspective you could say that they were realists who compromised or that they were sell-outs who were sleeping with the enemy. But Jesus seems to stand more in the prophetic line of Isaiah. So they ask him about taxes, trying to set him up. He gives an enigmatic answer: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.  

In a sense, that is a response that we Christians will continue to struggle with until the end of human history: how much of our lives belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar? Christians down through the ages have responded differently, and I know that we won’t find an easy consensus tonight on that. I think that is because there is not one right answer for every time and place.  

But that is why I wanted us to be here tonight—together. Because we need each other to be the Church, and because God is not a Democrat or a Republican. By being here together, all of us, we can remember that our politics is always penultimate, and that our ultimate loyalties are not to Caesar or to Obama or to Romney, but to Jesus as Lord.  

We gather at this Table to remember that in spite of deep divisions over many things, we truly are one in Christ. And that will be just as true tomorrow morning as it is tonight. Though we are many and though we are different, we are members of one Body. This is a place where we can remember that petty partisanship, while deeply ingrained in our American psyche, is not the way of Jesus.  

In the heat of the moment, Martha Washington told her clergyman that Jefferson “was the most detestable of mankind.”  

I wonder how he responded?