Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Politics of Jesus: Why it Matters

Psalm 146 and Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 28, 2016
Mount Vernon Place UMC

            It might surprise some of you to hear what I’m about to say, but I need to tell you anyway. I’m a rather opinionated person. I have strong opinions on the church and the kind of leadership it needs for the future. I have strong opinions on politics and policy making. And, I have all kinds of opinions about other peoples’ opinions! 
            I suspect that if we were to all share our opinions with each other on the church and politics that many of you would leave the room and never return – as you should. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. I do not believe the church should endorse any candidate for political office. And I have worked hard to keep patriotism whether sung, spoken or symbolized outside the sanctuary. What we do here is to worship God, learn more about God’s ways, and discover what it means to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And that is my hope and prayer for this new worship series called "The Politics of Jesus."
            I was taught in my introduction to political science class that politics is “the ability to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others.” It’s a definition that resonates with me as I think about what candidates, elected officials and lobbyists say and do to get people to vote for them or to move a piece of legislation forward. We are in a city that is overflowing with people who want to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others.
            But Parker Palmer, whose work Healing the Heart of Democracy will be used throughout this series, defines politics with these words: “the essential and eternal human effort to craft the common life on which we all depend.”[1] While I was taught that politics is about me getting you to do whatever I want, Palmer reminds us that politics requires that we take account of everyone around us, and seek to weave “a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend.”[2]
            Palmer says we cannot enter into politics without making sure our hearts are front and center. He reminds us of the original meaning of the word “heart” which “comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge.” But cor is “also the Latin root from which we get the word courage.” He writes, “When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.”[3]
            How often do you hear people start with the heart when talking about politics?
How often are political decisions dictated first by the heart and second by deeply held convictions that we have refused to allow anyone to challenge or even question ourselves because it’s the way we have been taught to believe?
            Only when the heart is front and center can we imagine politics as what Palmer describes as “the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day.”[4]
            What would it take for such a vision to become a reality in every place where people are making decisions that impact others?
            Perhaps it starts with the posture we take when approaching “the other” whoever the other might be.
            Jesus often uses the table as a key place of learning and especially in Luke’s gospel. In fact, former professor of preaching Fred Craddock explains how “Nothing can be for Luke more serious than a dining table.” [5] The dining table is where Jesus is most revealed. It’s where we celebrate the Eucharist. And, it’s where Jesus gathered all kinds of people to teach and reprove.
            It’s at the table where today’s lesson occurs, and not just any table, but a wedding feast. In ancient Palestine, male banquet guests would have gathered around the table in reclined seats with a particular order to the seating. The center table at a wedding banquet in Palestine was reserved for whoever the most prominent guests were in attendance. The people in the center were people who had the most wealth or power. They got the center seats because of the office they held. In our day, you can imagine the President, Members of Congress or CEOs sitting in the center, something that does, in fact, regularly happen.
            But Jesus challenges the seating arrangement. He watches people choose the seats of honor, and he admonishes them to instead take a lower seat. Don’t go for the place of honor. Rather, assume your place is somewhere else in the room. Sit down, and wait until you’re invited to a different table. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[6]
            If you receive the weekly email, then you may know that I invited you to try to imagine our two presidential candidates seeking the lower seat, and not just the lower seat, but I took it a step further. Imagine for a moment Donald Trump sitting below Hillary Clinton and asking her for wisdom or even for an explanation of why she has the views she has. And then imagine Hillary Clinton doing the same thing – assuming a posture that demonstrates how she doesn’t know everything but rather might learn something from Mr. Trump. And then imagine what might happen if these two individuals actually shared a meal together where they could look one another in the eye and be vulnerable enough to share their hearts, asking each other questions about what makes it beat, what robs its joy, what breaks it in two. Would they be able to leave that meal and proceed to demonize each other on the nightly news? 
            And what about us?
I’ve heard more people say this year that they are voting for “the lesser of two evils” for president than any other year.  How regularly do you call someone evil? Some of us may not be able to remember the last time we referred to someone as evil other than Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. But do we really believe they are evil, that the devil is actively working within them? And what does our saying they are evil or our constantly putting them down say about us – myself included?
I cannot begin to count how many times I have cursed at the television when a story comes on about this year’s presidential election. I’ve taken my disappointment to social media. I’ve allowed these two people to get to me, one more than the other, and bring out words that are not exactly words I’d like Jesus to hear me saying. I’ve shouted at the television more during this presidential election season than I have shouted at the screen when Duke was playing in the Final Four.
And I thought it was all perfectly acceptable.
But this week I’ve been challenged to behave differently.
            I believe God cares deeply about nearly every issue we refer to as "political" - and not just the issues the church regularly gets involved with like abortion or marriage -  whether it’s the environment, the economy, war, peace, guns, immigration, and so many others. But what I realized as I read, studied and prayed this week is that God cares even more about the status of our hearts!
            Jesus constantly used the ordinary, everyday life activities as examples in his teaching. He used the “home and marketplace, farm and fishing boat” to reveal what life looks like in the kingdom of God – the place where God’s presence is tangibly seen through the ways people live.  The Greek historian “Plutarch once observed that it is in the small, apparently trivial act that character is most accurately reflected.”[7] What, then does our political life – the stances we have taken, the words we have spoken, the judgments we have made, the demonization we have contributed to – say about our character? What do our words and actions say about our love of God and neighbor?
            Palmer offers two words that most summarize the habits of the heart American citizens need today in response to our current conditions: chutzpah and humility. Chutzpah is the recognition that we have a voice to share, one that needs to be heard as well as the right to use this voice. Humility is “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other.’”[8] While we may think there is plenty of chutzpah to go around, there are many of us who have forgotten that we are all called to speak up and participate. Politics is not meant to be a spectator sport, and we are not called to be complacent. 
But humility – that capacity to always say something with the recognition that I might not be right – goodness that’s a hard one to find and embody. And it was certainly lacking over a recent family vacation when I was stunned to learn that my father is not just supporting a candidate but actually giving him money. Imagine if all of us had an equal amount of humility to match our chutzpah!
So where do we go from here?
One theologian recently suggested that we use the next 70 or so days separating us from the election to only post positive things on Facebook instead of participating in the demonization of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. I’m trying to follow her advice.
Perhaps we seek out someone whose views are different than are own and share a meal together in hopes of seeing a glimpse of their heart, making sure we give them the seat of honor in the process.
Maybe we try to daily pray for both Donald and Hillary by name, asking God to bless them and give them wisdom, guidance and grace while remembering how both of these individuals are created in the image of God.
And all of us need to remember who really is in charge. I recall when President Obama was running for office how many campaign posters had his image on it as well as the word “Hope.” It was as if we had never heard the word hope before and were ready to usher in a new savior of the world. But President Obama did not bring hope to this world. Jesus did, and Jesus still is.
Just as no political candidate is Satan, neither is any political candidate our savior. None of them can fix every obstacle facing our nation and our world.  The Psalmist teaches that our praise should never be aimed for princes or presidents who are here today and gone tomorrow. We should not believe that our help is in policies no matter how just-filled they might be.
Rather, there is one who came so that we might have life and life abundant.
This one is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
This one executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoner free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, upholds the orphan and the widow.
And this one does not do it alone but rather calls and equips the church, ordinary people like you and me, to join in extraordinary work that can change and transform our city and God’s world.
May our lives be filled with praise and be worthy of praise – our church lives and our political lives. May our lives be overflowing with chutzpah and humility. May we embody a politics that is not only worthy of the human spirit, but one that is worthy of God who created us, called us and invites us to join God in the redemption of the world.
Thanks be to God.

[1] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) 6.
[2] Palmer, xii.
[3] Palmer, 6.
[4] Palmer, 8.
[5] Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 175.
[6] Luke 14:11.
[7] Craddock, 176.
[8] Palmer, 43.

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