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?