Discord, Division, Polarization, Incivility
The words we use to describe today’s politics are all pretty ugly.
Today I want to ask, how does a Christian, how does a follower of Jesus, engage political questions? Now, that might make you nervous. It’s good to be nervous from time to time. I know some of you would prefer a preacher who steered clear of politics. Today I want to talk a little bit about why I don’t think that’s a good idea. Politics was ugly in Jesus’ day as well. Jerusalem particularly, the setting for Jesus’ questioning today, was a pressure cooker. Today we learn a bit about Jesus’ politics.
Jesus engaged in politics
We read today that the Pharisees have heard that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees. To understand what’s going on, you have to know that these are two religious and political parties, and they don’t get along. This section of Matthew’s Gospel is set up as a long discourse between Jesus, his disciples, and the Jewish parties.
The religious and political parties of his day set Jesus up, and they’re listening for language. The Pharisees, who hate the Roman Empire’s occupation ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay a tax. The Sadducees, who are quiet comfortable with Rome, think the Pharisees have invented a bunch of religious nonsense ask Jesus about marriage and the resurrection. In both cases Jesus’ answer challenges his questioners. He refuses their categories. He doesn’t play their word games.
Words are powerful in politics. They are the currency of discourse. Words matter. Particular words, particular phrases are charged in our politics. Do you want to know where someone stands in the politics of immigration reform? Listen to whether they use the words “undocumented immigrant” or “illegal alien.” I’m sure you can think of other examples. There were particular turns of phrase, particular words that mattered in Jesus’ time. Both the Sadducees and the Pharisees want Jesus to either endorse or reject their particular position with his choice of words. They want to know, “whose side are you on?” There’s a right and a wrong answer they think, before they put these questions to Jesus. Jesus disarms the questions.
I told this story earlier this year, right when our group got back from visiting El Salvador. While we were making our trip back in June, my friend Grace made a fascinating observation. Some of you know Grace. She has a Sunday morning job at another church that keeps her away from our worship services, but she often serves with us at the Trinity meal for the hungry and she comes to evening programs. Grace had a real insight into why I, and so many people say they feel “at home” in the country. People often remark on the hospitality they find in El Salvador, it is a hallmark of the culture. Salvadorans take the time to greet you, to ask you how you are, to really listen.
Grace noticed that, among the Salvadorans, people weren’t “on edge” politically with us, in the way we seem to be with each other in the United States. When she said that, I thought, yeah.
Have you felt this “on-edge-ness”? Have you found yourself not really listening to another person, just readying your “talking points” on a particular political topic? I know I have. Have you found yourself on the receiving end? I’ve said something that set off a reaction from another person. I’ve even set off a set of “talking points” I agreed about.
Grace noticed, in El Salvador, the edge was off. People spent more time listening to one another, and less time correcting. At least with us, the Salvadorans were less “on edge.” Words were less charged.
The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “on edge” tension can be called “dualism.” We are set up, in our culture, to see “this” or “that,” “black” or “white,” “male” or “female,” “gay” or “so-called straight,” “conservative” or “liberal.” Dualism is a trap, says Rohr. We are taught to look for the other, the opposite, and to oppose. We don’t hear nuance. You are with us or against us. That tension of the two poles, the opposites, is not of God, Rohr says. There is always a third way. We can move past dualism. What does non-dualism look lie?
Non-dualism looks like Jesus’ politics. In each of these encounters Jesus has really listened. He understands where his questioners are coming from. He knows their positions well, well enough that he is able to challenge them on their own territory, using their own charged language, but always with a surprise.
Today the Pharisees, those keepers of the law, ask Jesus, “which is the greatest commandment.” This is a trap. Jesus knows if he elevates any of the ten commandments above another, the Pharisees will declare he is unfit as a teacher. Jesus finds a third way. He breaks the dualistic thinking.
Jesus’ response is a faithful response, and it’s a political response. When we are unfamiliar with the parties, it might be hard to hear the politics. But Jesus directly engaged in the politics of his day. These questions are religious, but they are also about whether he gives fealty to Rome or to the Jewish separatists. Jesus encounters this charged question, this partisan language, The Pharisees are setting him up. And Jesus’ response is generous to the ones who seek to be his adversary. Jesus says, “I know you’re trying to trip me, but I also know you love God. You love God, and you love Scripture. I see you Pharisees. Let me answer your question. Let me take your setup and respond with wisdom, and with love.”
The rabbis hold that Deuteronomy Chapter six, verse 5, the “Shema” contains the whole truth of Scripture. So he quotes it to them, chapter a verse:
“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Then he adds his own words, he goes beyond their questions,
“and the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then Jesus drops the mic.
How many of you could quote those words I just read? My guess is a good portion, maybe the majority, even in an Episcopal church we inadvertently memorize some Scripture. If you knew these words, there’s good reason. Jesus’ response to this charged question becomes the simplist distillation of Christian teaching. Love God. Love neighbor. That’s it. That’s the commandment. The rest is just details.
Celebrating the Reformation
Those details can sometimes loom large in the church. Sometimes the church has its own politics. Some of you may have been surprised to see the words “Reformation Sunday” printed on your leaflet this Sunday. Some Episcopalians seem unsure whether or not we are Protestants. (If you’re unsure, come and take my Pilgrimage class, the class for newcomers and inquirers sometime. We’ll talk through the history).
I am a proud Protestant, and if there is a year to celebrate the Reformation, it’s this year. I even got an invitation to a celebration of the Reformation from the Archbishop of St. Louis this year. 500 years ago this Tuesday Martin Luther mailed his 95 theses to his Bishop, and he probably nailed them up on the door of that church in Wittenburg. Some of the ideas had been circulating for awhile before Luther, but Luther publicized and pushed. The Archbishop of Canterbury had an article out this weekend. He said if Luther was alive today, he would have tweeted the theses.
In his own way, Luther’s move was in the vein of Jesus. Now, Luther was not like Jesus in a number of ways. His language could be pretty harsh. Even owning that Luther was a product of his time and sometimes traded in prejudice, his work can be read as an act of love, and a search for a way out of the systems of his day.
Luther served a church that had strayed into some deeply strange territory. People hardly ever received the bread and wine made holy, but priests were paid to perform mass hundreds of times a week to help dead relatives out of purgatory. The Archbishop of St. Louis, even the Pope, are celebrating the Reformation this year because Luther won. He helped the church to refocus. Even the Catholic Church agrees with the Lutherans these days about indulgences, the language of worship, and the function of grace.
Now, as the gay married and ordained son of an woman priest, I have to stay, I’m still protesting. We have a long ways to go in the Catholic Church. We have a long ways to go in most of the church universal. I’m going to continue to protest, and to claim a proud protestant identity.
Luther’s reformation, Luther’s protest, was motivated by a deep love. Luther loved God. He loved Jesus, and he loved the church. The great reformer wanted to see the church follow Jesus. Luther was not content with the politics of his day, and so he found a new way to engage, new language. His engagement cost him. He was excommunicated by the pope and condemned by the Holy Roman Emperor. For Luther, like Jesus, spiritual responses had political implications.
Luther’s question becomes our question: How does a follower of Jesus engage politics? The bar is high. When it comes to politics, words matter, but wisdom matters more. Listen deeply to those with whom you disagree, and look for ways to love them. Then challenge the whole system. Do not be content with pat answers. Don’t settle for simple polarization. Find creative words, words that bring life, action that challenges the status quo.
How can we continue that Reformation? How could we take that reformation outside the walls and start to remake our city? Our nation? Our world? How could we let the love of God and the love of neighbor loose on our street corner?
Luther would want me to point back to Jesus, to the grace of this Gospel today. Jesus’ patient and faithful response to those who would be his political adversaries reminds us that if we would love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, we are going to have to stretch. We are going to have to open our minds, strengthen our souls, and stretch our hearts. If we are going to participate in Jesus’ politics, we must be willing to grow: in wisdom, in depth, and in love.