My sermon - The Politics of Jesus - dealt with the role of the church in political affairs. Use the below link to download the podcast of my sermon for your iPod or personal computer.
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The text of the sermon is below:
There is good news and bad news to share this morning. The bad news is that we are quickly approaching the 2008 national elections and together will have to endure endless political commercials interrupting our television programs over the next twelve months. And the good news? Well, there really isn’t any but I didn’t want to leave you all without any hope at the outset of this sermon.
My goal today is to lay out for us in preparation for the coming 2008 elections the theological principles largely shared by our denomination and other church bodies that relate to political activity and the church.
Politically activity and the church? Wait a minute. Isn’t there a separation between church and state in America? Yes, of course there is, and I as much as anyone appreciate Thomas Jefferson’s leadership in drawing that line clearly.
The government may not establish a state religion, argued Mr. Jefferson, but the Founders never argued that religious people or churches should be excluded from public life. The best modern statement that seeks to clarify the role of the church in public life comes from the United Methodist Church. It reads:
The United Methodist Church believes that the church has the moral imperative to act for the common good. For people of faith, therefore, there are no political or spiritual spheres where their participation can be denied. The attempt to influence the formation and execution of public policy at all levels of government is often the most effective means available to churches to keep before humanity the ideal of a society in which power and order are made to serve the ends of justice and freedom for all people. Through such social action The United Methodist Church generates new ideas, challenges certain goals and methods, and help rearrange the emphasis on particular values in ways that facilitate the adoption and implementation of specific policies and programs that promote goals that are congruent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This task of the Church is in no way in contradiction with our commitment to a vital separation of Church and State. We believe that the integrity of both institutions is best served when both institutions do not try to control the other. Thus, we sustain with the first amendment to the Constitution that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” We live in a pluralistic society. In such a society, churches should not seek to use the authority of government to make the whole community conform to their particular moral codes. Rather, churches should seek to enlarge and clarify the ethical grounds of public discourse and to identify and define the foreseeable consequences of available choices of public policy.
Maybe it would help to break down what is allowed and what is prohibited activity for churches and for clergy. In your bulletin this morning is a two-page handout you can take home and read later that includes much of this information. This handout is also available online.
Churches cannot endorse political candidates or endorse the efforts of political parties. That means, for example, that we could not release a statement to the public saying we believe Thomas Jefferson should be elected president. If we did the IRS would knock on our door shortly thereafter and revoke our tax exempt status. And as far as I’m concerned that is exactly what should happen. As our United Methodist friends said: the integrity of both the state and the church is “best served when both institutions do not try to control the other.”
A mistake that over the history of our nation both theological liberals and conservatives have made in different moments is to equate one political candidate or one political party as being somehow closer to God. We need to resist this impulse for several reasons. First, I’ve never been aware of any public figure – at least since Jesus – who fully understood the wisdom of God. We all fall short despite even the best of intentions. When the late Jerry Falwell and others argued during the 2004 elections that you could not be a Christian unless you voted for their preferred candidates they supplanted their own beliefs for the Gospel teachings. Second, and perhaps more important, is that when we align the church with one candidate or one political party we risk becoming an agent of that cause instead of an agent of God. Scripture teaches us that we are called by God not to be rulers but rather loving critics of the conventional wisdom.
And it is in that task – calling the political leaders of our day to account – in which there can be no negotiation. Scripture teaches that we have a responsibility as a people of God to be actively involved in the life of the world. That means that the role of the church is sometimes to lift up difficult issues and put them before the public. That is what abolitionists in our churches did during the era of slavery, that is what civil rights marchers did in our churches during the Civil Rights Movement and that is what our churches are doing today in calling for an end to the Iraq War. Those of us who are followers of Jesus have a special responsibility to speak out on issues related to peace and justice.
In practical terms, that means that we have a responsibility as the church to speak out on legislation under consideration by Congress or initiatives put before the voters. The Constitution fully supports the right of churches to be involved on this level – to say we call for Yes vote on Measure X or a No vote on Measure Y. And for guidance on how to conduct ourselves in this arena we have to look no further than the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
Our first two readings this morning come from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Daniel Berrigan wrote once:
Isaiah, as we have come to know, lived in a time astonishingly like ours – with wars and rumors of war. In the great prophetic tradition, he intervened directly in political, military and diplomatic events. For a time, he was an oracular presence at court, honored and hearkened to by the high and mighty. Then he predicted the invasion of the country; it happened twice. He lived to see his beloved Jerusalem besieged. In all this, royal sensibilities were offended.
Then Isaiah donned the garb of a court fool – one who mimes foolishness in high places. At first, he survived. Finally he was cast out. Far from being broke, his spirit seemed transfigured. He began to play hound of heaven, raising very hell at the wheels of the imperial chariot. He died, tradition tells, under those wheels.
As you heard today in our readings, Isaiah spoke directly to political matters. He railed against the injustices inflicted on those who were poor and powerless. Isaiah critiqued laws that “crushed the face of the poor.”
When we come to the account of Jesus’ inaugural sermon in the Gospel of Luke we read that the son of God starts by quoting from….Isaiah. Those listening would have known that Jesus hadn’t chosen Isaiah by accident. He was, in fact, establishing his own credentials as a political figure.
So while I believe that we should ourselves follow in this tradition and be not afraid of becoming involved in the political questions of our time there are several caveats that I would invoke as parting wisdom.
Politicians have learned that they can win elections by finding those so-called wedge issues that divide people along religious, economic and racial lines. They hope that by raising these issues that it will increase voter turn out in some areas and suppress it in others. Division is a tool in politics. But we shouldn’t be about division as the church - we should be about community and reconciliation. And so, if the church is to become involved with political issues we need to be careful about the language we use and the tactics we employ. Our actions should always be undertaken with care and in prayer.
One way that we can avoid inflaming tensions is to be particularly careful about how we invoke the name of God. Too often churches deeply concerned about issues have told the public that God wants them to vote one way or another on Measure X. Let’s stay away from that and be humble enough to recognize that there is always the potential that we are wrong. After all, we’re only human. When we do endorse issues it should be said that we do so with our best understanding of where God is calling us as a people but room should be left for those who disagree with us to know they are God’s people too. The church does not have a monopoly on the truth.
Finally, I’ve spoken about how I believe churches should never become involved in partisan political causes. That’s the law and it is a theologically sound principle. But that law and that principle does not apply to individuals or even clergy. The only way for the democratic process to work is for all of us to be engaged. Therefore, I hope as individuals we all get involved. I hope we work for candidates we believe will advance the common good. I hope we’ll all vote. I sometimes endorse candidates for public office and believe that doing so is appropriate. But as your pastor I’ll never talk about my support for a candidate from the pulpit or in any church setting because to do so would blur the lines in ways that would hurt the church.
A discussion like this is appropriate not just because we are one year away from the national elections but because this congregation is trying to determine how we best live out God’s mission. My humble advice: don’t think of mission simply as charity work. Isaiah and Jesus would have seen the value in charity work, no question about it, but they also understood that God wants us to create a world where justice is the organizing principle and where charity should be something employed in an emergency and not as a way of life to sustain those forced into poverty, fleeing from war, or displaced due to the global climate crisis. If we need help in determining a mission statement for the church we might turn to the words Jesus quoted from Isaiah:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Now that is a mission statement.
Related Link: Guidelines for Congregations on Political Action
Related Link: Christian Principles In An Election Year