Especially for Murph and Marilyn and Bob and Carrol…
[This is a sermon I gave at Plantsville Congregational Church, UCC, Plantsville, CT July 27, 2012. I am particularly proud of it, because it solves some questions I wrestle with frequently her in blog-land.]
First, let me start off this morning by saying “Thank you” to this congregation and Pastor Sandy for inviting me here to Plantsville UCC. This is my third time here and I’ve enjoyed each time I preach here. In years where I haven’t preached elsewhere, I’ve preached here at Plantsville. This gives me a long time to think about what I want to say, so hopefully you get “prime” material in my sermons. Having said that…
When I was a kid, and people worried about being “polite”, it was said that there are three things you should never talk about in polite conversation – religion, sex, and politics. The challenge, of course, is to talk about the important things in life without at least talking about one of them. This morning, I want to talk to you about two of the three – politics and religion. Maybe we’ll save that third topic for next year – or never.
So, about politics… This year, in October, you will be asked to decide a lot of things about a lot of people. Certainly, there’s the Presidential election, but I’m sure there must be a Senatorial race, and State officials to be elected, and local boards of selectman and such. Then there will be, I assume, questions on the ballot for each of us to decide. And somewhere in there, there’s the Christian vote – not The Christian Vote – as in Pat Robertson and all the folks on TV claiming the title, though they are somewhere in the mix. I assume if you’re here, then you are the Christians I’m talking about voting come October.
Now, before anybody out there thinks I’m going to tell them who they “should” vote for, don’t worry, I’m not. I could give you all the reasons I’m voting for who I’m voting for, but that would be me and my vote. This is a democracy, after all, and you still get to vote for who you want to. I can only tell you how I think you should decide, not who to decide for.
So, how do Christians like you and I decide? Well, frankly, it’s not all that clear, but we have some clues to start with. My seminary professor Mark Heim once opened a lecture with the statement, “If Jesus is the answer, what’s the question?” . That should be our jumping off point. Jesus – at least the Jesus who was alive in Biblical times – has never been to America in 2012. Just as Jesus of 4 A.D. had nothing to say about Madonna’s outfit in her day or Lady Gaga’s anything in our day, there is no proof text that says “Vote for a Republican” or another that says, “Vote for a Democrat”. Jesus never had to deal with the internet. Jesus didn’t even have to deal with movie theaters, let alone bombings that happen there. So the world we consider is not the world of Jesus 2000 years ago. We were left with the Holy Spirit and these texts here in the Bible to do the best we can. To believe we must vote this way or that is to limit ourselves and to commit idolatry. To worship one party or the other is too limiting for a God and Spirit who have seen it all. God is neither Democrat or Republican and we do God and our faith a disservice if we think we have to vote one way or the other.
So, we don’t have one answer in the Bible, and we don’t have one answer in politics. So what do we have? We have questions – and we as Christians have to ask different questions of our leaders than, say, the Rotary Club. So what questions do we ask to make up our minds? The answers – at least some of them – can be seen in today’s texts.
In the Psalm reading, we see that God is a God of justice and a call for fairness to widows and orphans. So, if a candidate were to walk in here today, we would have to ask them about justice and fairness to people with no voice – people in ancient days who were exemplified by widows and orphans. Widows, as women, had no vote in the matters of the day. They had influence if they had a husband, but since widows no longer have husbands, they had no voice. Plus, I assume they were grieving at the loss of their husband, in much the same way that orphans grieved at the loss of their parents. You know what a mess kids can make with no parents around. Multiply that by some factor and you have orphans left to fend for themselves – thrown to the wind to make it on their own.
So, whichever candidate you vote for, and whatever ballot initiative you are asked to vote for, it seems to me, we should take into account those who have no voice, those who have no vote, those who are grieving, and those left by society to fend for themselves. I don’t know about you, but in all the TV ads for this or that candidate, I haven’t heard anyone talk about the people who don’t vote, or can’t vote. That’s because the ads are aimed at those who do and can vote. We in the church are supposed to think differently.
See what I mean, we’re supposed to ask different questions? It’s because God’s version of “success” and your average American’s version of “success” might be totally different. According to the prophets of the Old Testament and people like Jesus, it doesn’t matter if we have all the money in the world. It matters if everyone has what they need – even people you’ve never heard of, people you don’t know, and people are the opposite of success by society’s standards, even – dare I say it? – your enemies.
If you and your politician are voting for yourselves, you’re missing the point. When you step into that voting booth, you need to vote for everybody – even people who can’t vote. You may have heard that some states are putting into place new voting rules like “needs a picture ID” or “must prove residency” . These rules, according to some people, are designed to keep people away from the polls. If that’s true, it’s even more important that you vote for everybody, because so many others have no voice but yours.
But if “Jesus” isthe answer to political questions, then we need to ask ourselves about what Jesus stood for. To sum it up as has been done in the Bible, “Love God with all your strength and soul and mind and heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself”. If that God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — is the same God of Christians and Muslims and Jews, then we need to vote for people who let all of those groups worship God as they see God. How’s that for a different question?! Who is the candidate that allows all of those people to worship God – whether they call that entity God, Yahweh, or Allah? That person should get your vote. Which candidate expects people of those faiths to use all of themselves – their heart, their mind, their soul, and their strength – not just one or the other? That person is who you should vote for.
There are people who would have you vote with your soul – putting fear for it in you. There are people who would have you vote only with your heart. (so-called “bleeding heart liberals”) There are people who want you to vote with your head – people who love objectivity and the formulas that do this or that for the budget, for instance. (There are people who want you only to vote for your wallet. I don’t think Jesus ever made a choice that way, so they don’t count).
I write a blog and every once in awhile, it gets hairy around politics, representing the polarization that we’re experiencing in this country today. We get stuck in this either/or belief system. “Be a bleeding heart liberal” or “Use your head” we think. Others think, “save your soul and the soul of America”. But in the church, we’re supposed to be different.
The fact is that God gave you and I all three of those things, plus strength. There are people who want you to think about who makes America the “mightiest” country, but might does not make right. Which of the people you elect tempers America’s might with its heart and soul and mind? The person who uses all of those deserves your vote, from a Christian perspective.
By now, you may be saying to yourself, “Then who’s left to vote for? Nobody on the ballot meets all those qualifications!” and you’d probably be right. But since we’re limited to choosing human candidates, you and I have to ask “who’s the closest to that answer?”. Whatever we can do, we should do, even if that candidate is some weird third-party candidate that’s “never going to win” — or not. You have to use all your heart and soul and strength and mind to vote for whomever you think is going to going to use all of theirs and is most likely to make a difference in the world in that direction.
Now, regarding the “love your neighbor” part – that polarized America thing I just mentioned even strikes there. There are politicians out there who think that we “love our neighbor” by giving them everything. There are politicians out there who indicate that “love their neighbor” is rather like “tough love” — let them wrestle with their choices, let them struggle and grow in their own strength. Give them nothing but “freedom” and let them be”.
Let’s look at Jesus and his community of faith, the disciples, in this morning’s text, the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus has just come back from time alone on the other side of the Sea of Tiberius and is met by a pack of people who want healings. Jesus, knowing he’s going to help the people, points out that there’s still a problem – 5,000 people need to eat. He suggests the first thing that comes into their heads – “we’ll go into town and get some”.
Then they realize that the 12 of them combined, and Jesus, don’t have that kind of money. I don’t know about you, but I never have enough money with me to feed 500 people by myself. That’s the ratio of “people out there” to “disciples”, so, no, that’s not going to work — so much for the “easy way” or the first thing that comes into their minds.
Next up, Andrew, the brother of Peter, says what they do have. – a young boy has 5 small loaves and 2 small fish. The writer underlines the point – a young boy has 5 small loaves and 2 small fish. Then Jesus gives thanks and – surprise – the miracle happens.
So, what do we make of this? What does it have to do with politics and elections? As I’ve said, we’re in a weird time in this country, where people divide things up in black-and-white terms. Some people say, “The government should fix everything!”. I’m closer to that way of thinking generally, but the more I work with people, the more I also see the value of expecting things from them. If the government does everything, then that leaves a lazy populous who expect things to come their way and never work to better themselves, never become what they can be.
There are those who believe that government should do nothing but give people freedom. These are the people who say “the government that governs least governs best”. And in today’s world of not compromising, people lock into one position or the other. Either the government should do everything and the people nothing or the people should do everything and government should do nothing. But it’s not either of those. It’s both, as we can see if we look at the text this morning from the eyes of a faith community.
My wife and are going through the ups and downs of our faith lives together, as our own little community of faith. I think I have the strongest, truest deepest faith. Given to depression at times, I also have times where I have little or no faith at all. I think in twenty years of marriage, my wife has never lost her faith. Hers evolves, but it is never really gone. Sometimes, she’s more rational, sometimes I am.
Years ago, she preached on this text and she said “the ladies did it”. I said, “What ladies?” She said, “Women with children always have food in their purse”. When the disciples brought out the loaves and fishes and the women realize that it’s not enough, they feed their kids with what they have and they all have plenty!” For her, the parable was about believing that Jesus would provide, so sharing out of our bounty, much like the book “Stone Soup”. I was always the “miracles” man and I just said, “naw, Jesus wants to feed everybody, he (as God) makes all the bread and fish anyway, so what’s the problem with making a few more. It’s about believing in Jesus’ love for us”.
But what if it’s both? What if Jesus, in God, does make all of the fish and the wheat and the leaven. That’s God’s soul or spirit in action. What if Jesus, as Jesus, wants the people to be fed? That’s God heart in action. But what if Jesus, perhaps as both, sees the wisdom in letting humans do the work with what God supplies? I’m reading this book called “Kissing Fish” and it’s all about progressive Christianity. In it, the author says that God, even though God could do everything, chooses to limit Himself/Herself so that we can have equal partnership in creating the world – we can learn to create the world ourselves!
Preacher Jonathan Edwards was once asked, do we do things or does God, and he answered, “We do all. God does all.” That’s the way it really is. We do all we can, God does all that God can to further God’s design for our world.
So it is in politics as well. You know that quote about government governing best and least? The actual quote I saw on the wall of a church or Masonic lodge in Baltimore, I think, is this: “Government that governs least governs best, after the people are taken care of”. God gives us everything we need, and then leaves us alone to do what we will, hoping that we will share it. As long as we share it, God doesn’t need to correct us or send us prophets to point the way. If we create a just society and God gives us everything we need, the world will function pretty darn well. Is it a miracle? Yes. Are we allowed to do nothing because God can do it all? Were the disciples? No– and neither are we.
So here’s the last question to ask as you vote for this person or that, this bill or that. Who expects the most out of us while providing for our needs. Who gives us the whole package– freedom to choose, responsibility to act and freedom from want? The person closest to that ideal, the question that leads us closest to that ideal is the one you should vote for as a Christian.
See what I mean, we Christians ask different questions than others? We’re not a simple people, we’re a complex people, in a complicated time and we’re capable of coming up with complex answers to complex questions which – Lord knows – we’ve got plenty of this election year. May God grant us the wisdom to do what we can with that which God gives. Amen.