Coming to Church: A Political Decision

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, July 22, 2012
George Martin

Last week as I was getting my haircut from a young woman whose name was Amanda, I asked a question. I asked her, “I’m just wondering Amanda, if you’re registered to vote.” Such a question I thought might open up a very interesting conversation.

She replied. “I am.”
“Well does that mean you will vote?”
“Oh, most definitely.”
“Well then can you say where you stand on maybe some of the issues or candidates?”
“Oh no,” she replied. “We don’t talk politics or religion here in this salon. It’s a company rule.” She paused, and then whispered in my ear. “Any anyway that’s my boss cutting hair two chairs away.”

Well we’re going to talk politics and religion this morning. Talking religion makes sense given the fact that we are in church, but maybe the topic of politics, especially from someone standing in the pulpit makes you nervous.

Well let me frame it this way: each of us made a political statement when we walked into this church. And we said something, that I believe is terribly significant in terms of our politics as Christians at the beginning of our worship.

Remember how our worship began. “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

And you replied, and I want you to say it with me, but this time lets say it very slowly. “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever.”

God’s kingdom . That’s its blessed. That it’s now and that it’s forever. Ahead of and more important that any other rule? As if you ever might pray for this kingdom to become a reality. And if ever you can imagine saying “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven…” Well if you ever say such things, then you have brought politics into the church.

We will say more about this in a few minutes. The politics we are proclaiming requires, you see, a certain kind of citizenship. There are certain responsibilities that are connected with being a citizen. Do you vote? Do you come to church? Do we know the stories?

Now the stories of our faith involve the twists and turns over centuries of a peculiar people whose journey took them from being slaves in Egypt to a promised land where for a few glorious decades they commanded power and respect from their nearest neighbors. The story took a dark turn as various armies took turns conquering them, sending them into exile, and finally smashing for once and for all time their beloved temple in Jerusalem. The politics of the story was always there and it’s been on display in recent weeks in this church.

Now I’ll not put any of you on the spot asking if you’ve been here every Sunday this summer. I’ll presume that none of you have and thus will give you a quick review of the stories we heard from 1st and 2nd Samuel to date.

(Please note that this part of the sermon is read rather fast. We’re on fast-forward as we review all this material.)

This series bean on June 10 with a reading from  I Sam. Chapter 8. There Samuel, the prophet and judge, is asked by the people to crown a king, who will be Saul. But God doesn’t agree…it’s a bad idea, even though God acquiesces.

Now we didn’t hear the next few chapters but they are about battles Saul fights and he does a lot of dumb things. Finally in Chapter 15 Samuel says he’s sorry he ever made Saul king.

The next reading in church was on June 17th (1 Sam 16) It’s the story of choosing the youngest son of Jesse to be the next king, who turns out to be David. It’s Samuel’s job to find David.

The next week, we went onto chapter 17 and heard the story of David killing goliath with his five smooth stones, needing only the first to kill him. What we don’t hear is that Abner, the army commander brought the head of Goliah to Saul…it says in vrs. 57 he held it in one hand. That’s a feat of strength I believe and I’ve never heard a sermon on that topic.

Now there’s lots of the gruesome stuff that isn’t read in church—especially so from the next chapters. Like Saul trying to kill David. David running for his life. The wild frenzied crazy prophets that Saul joins.

Then there’s Saul’s son Jonathan, a successful commander, who strangely becomes David’s closest friend. But then Saul dies, thus clearly the way for David to be King. But Jonathan also died in the same battle, and that’s the song we heard read on Sunday July 1st, which was a lament from David.

More stories follow that aren’t read in  church. There’s a war for control of Israel between the house of David and that of Saul. Remember Abner who held Golaiths’ head? Well he defects to David’s house. But then Joab, a commander in David’s army stabs Abner while David was away. Actually it was a planned murder of revenge. Then another son of Saul’s was also murdered.

That all took place just before,  two weeks ago, we had a rather pastoral reading in which David was fully installed as King over Israel and made his capital in Jerusalem, called the City of David.

Last Sunday the story was about bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and how David and others danced in the streets in front of the ark.

And today we have David and Nathan, the prophet. Nathan tells David he’s not suppose to build a house for the ark. But his reign will be blessed and his kingdom will be established.

Murder. Mayhem. Revenge. Plots. Blood. Death. Rivalry. It’s all there. Kind of like the world we know, isn’t it.

And here’s the Wall Street Journal from Saturday, July 14. One week ago. Lead story: a 6 billion settlement by the credit card companies which essentially stole that money from various merchants, and in essence from us as well.

Second lead story: The confession of Russall Wasendorf and the way his company, Peregrine Financial Group embezzeled more than $100 million. He attempted suicide, but failed in that attempt.

Inside we have Penn State. The war in Syria. Rebels in the Congo.

[I have to tell  you that I wrote this sermon early in the week. And then came the horrible news from Aurora Colorado—the killing of 12 people, the wounding of so many more. It just ever so sadly confirmed what I knew was sadly so true.]

Our world really hasn’t changed much in the 3000 years since the time of Samual, Saul and David.

But there is a community, a community with a story, which believes that the world doesn’t have to be that way. And we are that people. A political people who believe that it’s possible to establish a certain kind of community that in so many ways is meant to be the exact opposite of a world that uses weapons or violence to solve its problems.

So when we come together? Is our task to praise the powerful, the winners, and those who’ve won the gold? No, our task is just the opposite—to welcome all, especially the weak and the vulnerable. Thus our gospel today.  “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

But the passage of scripture we really need to have in mind, to discuss the political implications of being in the church is our reading from the letter to the Ephesians.

Now some scholars wonder if Paul really wrote Ephesians, but even if he didn’t, the content is such that it’s fair to say, “It sure sounds like Paul.” Especially if we can understand how passionate Paul was about understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus was God’s totally new thing—God changing this world forever. Paul was convinced that there was no longer any justification for ethnic identities, or gender distinctions, or economic variables to deny anyone their worth in the eyes of God. And knowing this story and through our Baptism we were given the eyes of God and thus must use them inside our gathering and outside as well.

Even though Paul’s been sorely misread and wrongly interpreted through two thousand years of Church history, I’m convinced that Paul saw salvation, or what you might call God’s deliverance, as accomplished in Christ, and even knowing it’s not always acknowledged or understood, that it still is operative and real for each and every person. That means, by the way,  that when we come together we aren’t getting good grades from God for being here. We’re not better than those who aren’t in church. We don’t go to heaven and they head somewhere else. But here we are reminded of the story of Jesus, and that of these other crazy stories that define us—and the thread that emerges is that we come together because Christ is our peace. Christ has broken down the barriers. We may have been far off, we may have been strangers and aliens, but because of what God has done, we are declared what? Ah, “….citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

I personally like the sign that Stanely Hauerwas has hanging on his office door. [Living Gently in a Violent World. Stanely Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, p. 55] Hauerwas, perhaps the leading theologian of Christian ethics in our time, has a sign he got from the Mennonite Central Committee that shows two people embracing one another. There’s a slogan on the sign that says, “A modest proposal for peace: let Christians of the world resolve not to kill one another.”

Professor Hauerwas says that people knock on his door and often say, “That makes me so mad.”

He asks, “Really? Why?”

They say, “Well, Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”

And Hauerwas replies, “They call it a modest proposal. You’ve got to begin somewhere.”

You’ve got to begin somewhere. And sometimes you’ve got to be on your knees, next to strangers, next to aliens, and all of us are saying “We confess that we have erred and strayed from your ways.”

Pauls said that we  “…are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” And by that concept he’s not referring to a real building, but to the body of Christ, which he always knew as this collection of people brought together by the blood of Christ into a new community—a community which is suppose to have a set of practices different from the world. A community that shares a common meal at which Christ is also present. A community that shares the peace—not just any peace, but that peace that breaks down the barriers.

And when we come together, making this political statement about God’s kingdom, we’re not thinking that this gets us right with God. But we hear over and over again that we need to be right with each other, and especially with those in need in this world. The kind of welcome we extend to one another and our call to service is so different from the ways of the world that relies on forms of violence and intimidation.

At one point in a book called In Good Company, Stanley Hauerwas comments on an encylical of Pope Pius IX issued in 1925. In it the Pope declared Christ the King Sunday,  as one of the major feasts of the Church.  We keep at this feast as the conclusion of our Pentecost season, In that encyclical the Pope questioned the ways of the world that had such an unequal distribution of wealth. He noted that “societies constituted on acquisitiveness cannot help but be imprisoned within perpetual conflict and violence.” [In Good Company, p. 214]

Our declaration of a citizenship rooted in the Kingdom of Christ means a set of values and practices that inevitably places us at odds with some of the ways of this world. It’s what leads Hauerwas to declare,

“Yet through our baptisms we have been so washed, made part of God's counter history, counter kingdom, counter community that we'd rather die before we kill. Moreover, we believe as we are made of people of such memory we offer the world a history not destined to repeat her murderous past.” [In Good Company, p. 168]

This story of our coming together is the creation of what Paul calls a New Humanity. “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,”

Now when Paul says something is “new” Paul had two words he could have chosen. The Greek “Neos” is a term  for what’s “new” that’s based on time. It means the “latest”, Newest in the sense of now you can have it. You may have just bought a 2012 Cadillac, but you know it won’t be new for long.

But there was another word for another kind of new. It was “Kainos” and that’s the word used to refer to a New Humanity. It’s that new that has a qualitative character, such that it’s so different from and unexpected, that it’s unique. (I think the iPad was a kind of “Kainos” new when it was introduced a few years ago. And now other pads are “Neos”, one new after another new.”

And we? We’re “Kainos”. A New humanity, that lives by a story framed partly by a bloody history, but uniquely in the story of Jesus Christ—and yes, his story was marked by violence—but not by his hand. His way was that of sacrifice and love. His call was to bear one another’s burdens.

And Paul. Who admitted to using violence against Christians, met this Christ, who became for him His Peace. Then it led him to proclaim that God’s Kingdom could be glimpsed in the gathering of those who knew that God’s kingdom was now a reality, because of what God had shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a community that still lives. It’s here this morning in this church as we welcome others who are strangers and aliens. Marked by the kiss of peace and the way we share the bread and the wine.  And it’s here because all of us are citizens of God’s kingdom.  Each of us belongs to God’s kingdom but we don’t have a flag to wave—all of us, instead, are marked by the sign of the cross. Amen.

Note in the discussion of this sermon that took place in the Library, I suggested that if people want to read more on topics suggested in this sermon that they look at the following books:

Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company
John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus