Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, Oct 29

HI all--here's the sermon I preached this last Sunday at Exton. The text was from Luke 20:20-26, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." It's titled "Does Jesus Care How I Vote?"

My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm near Syracuse, New York. My maternal grandfather also grew up on a farm, this one more a ranch, really, in Stratton, Colorado, just west of the Kansas state line. They met each other in a little Nazarene church, led a youth group together, and eventually were married, and became Drs. Kay and Ken Lindley. They taught at my alma mater, Houghton College; my grandmother chaired the history department and my grandfather chaired the math and science department.
My grandfather was wildly different than my grandmother. She is extroverted, and he was usually silent. Grandma has to have people around; Grandpa was comfortable with a slide rule and some new gadget to play with. Grandma was well-loved and well-remembered by many students, even to this day; Grandpa was well-loved and well-known to a few, because he preferred to keep a lower profile.
They certainly were different people. But maybe the sharpest difference was politics. In almost every presidential election from 1948 until 2004, Grandma and Grandpa canceled each other’s vote out. In every presidential election, Grandma and Grandpa had to vote, if for no other reason than that they had to stop the other’s vote from counting. Now that Grandpa has passed away, in 2008, Grandma can go to the polls and for the first time, know her vote will mean more than just canceling out Grandpa’s.
Grandma was a New Deal Democrat, one of approximately five registered Democrats in the whole town of Houghton. She truly believed in the sort of big government favored in the Great Depression—that part of government’s role was to provide for the people, even though that meant higher taxes for everyone. Grandpa, though, was decidedly not a Democrat. He was a classic conservative—he believed that the role of government should be quite small. Government had no business taking from the rich to give to the poor; now, please understand, this does not mean he didn’t believe he should give to the poor. It’s simply that he didn’t think government should mandate it. The two had the same deep Christian faith, deeper than almost anyone else I’ve ever known. But they understood the role of government very deeply, and so they always canceled each other out. Yet they still loved each other deeply; Grandma will always miss Grandpa until they are reunited.
I miss their good-natured disagreements. I miss them especially at this time of year, when we are simply assaulted with campaign messages. This appears to be one of the most vicious midterm elections I’ve ever seen. I receive mailings like this one with regularity (pick out one or two that particularly demonize). What we see here is not a good, honest exchange of ideas between two people who have different philosophies; this is outright war between people. It seems as if each side will do whatever they have to do to get your vote, even if it means degrading other people, slandering their reputation. It is as if I got up here on a Sunday morning and called the local Lutheran minister a disgrace, or said that the local Methodist minister was not really a Christian because she believes in infant baptism. Yes, we have significant, real differences in the way we understand the faith, but I don’t think people who disagree with me are less than me. I’ll debate their ideas passionately, and I hope intellectually, but I won’t stoop to calling them a disgrace.
These are confusing times to be a Christian and politically aware. The world of politics somehow doesn’t seem like a safe place for a Christian to be; it seems like politics must just taint everyone who gets involved with them. I get campaign ads like this and my first impetus is to throw it away and then go wash my hands because they’re probably dirty from touching this kind of stuff. And indeed, many Christians are washing their hands from politics. Many Christians simply stay totally uninvolved because they figure politics is just beyond redemption, that there’s no point in getting involved in politics because it’s just inherently a sleazy business.
I must say, I have some appreciation for that viewpoint. There’s part of me that just wants nothing to do with it. All the voices screaming and yelling, all the degradation and the hate, eventually it just washes over you and you get pretty good at ignoring all of it.
But at the same time, it doesn’t seem totally right to just tune out. After all, even though it is hard for me to come to grips with sometimes, politics is how we choose our leaders. Even though politics seems like a kind of game that encourages dirty play, politics is the way we choose our leaders. If Christians simply opt out, if we just say, “I’m not interested,” then we leave all those decisions to someone else. If we do not involve ourselves in the world of politics, if we do not know how to think about politics, then we automatically disqualify ourselves from having anything meaningful to say about the world of politics. And that’s too high a price to pay, in my estimation.
It is this idea that I think Jesus refers to in today’s scripture. In order to trap him, some religious people ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes. They think this will trap him because if he says “Yes,” his more revolutionary followers will be disappointed. And if he says, “No, it’s not lawful to pay taxes,” he would be arrested and severely punished. So they think they have Jesus cornered—no matter what he answers, he’s going to take a hit.
But here is what Jesus does: he says, “Let me see a coin; whose picture is on it?” And they say, “Caesar.” And he says, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and God the things that are God’s.” In other words, Jesus recognizes that we are part of two different kingdoms in a sense. In other words, as one commentator says, “If you accept Caesar’s currency and use it, you are bound to accept his right to impose taxes; but there is a domain in which Caesar’s writ does not run and everything belongs to God.” We have one foot in the world of Caesar, and one foot in the world of God. We cannot simply divorce ourselves from the realities of this world to pursue God more fully.
So today, I want to examine the question, “Does Jesus care how I vote?” I want to give us a few thoughts on this question that maybe can help us each to think about how we as Christians should view politics. I don’t expect everyone here to agree with everything I say; feel free to connect with me this week if you want to chat more about this.
The first point that I think is important to make is that in our nation, church and state are separate, but politics and religion never are. Church and state are separate, but politics and religion never are. Now, what do I mean by that?
Well, first I mean that in our culture, church and state have different turf. The state is not supposed to waste its time doing things the church should be doing; so the state doesn’t preach religion, doesn’t advise people on how to live their lives, doesn’t share any particular viewpoint about God. Just so, the church doesn’t have to waste its time doing things that the state should be doing. Maybe in the old days, the church had power to convict and execute somebody, but now that’s the state’s turf. Church and state are recognized as two different spheres.
Now, I understand this as being very healthy. I have an understanding of Christianity, one I believe in passionately. And I love to speak about what God has done in my life, how he is changing me and all of us; as a pastor, I love to speak and try to help others to see the beauty of life with God. But I don’t expect the state to do that for me. I don’t expect the state to pass laws that will force other people to accept my way of thinking, nor do I expect the state will go out of its way to make my job easier. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not the US Government’s job, to spread the gospel. To me, the separation of church and state makes a lot of sense.
This is quite consistent with the early church. In those days, the church was not politically powerful at all—Christians tended to be outcasts, people without political power. And so the early Christians were never under an illusion that the Roman Empire or the local province of Judea were going to start passing all kinds of laws that were favorable to Christianity. They knew that if the faith was going to be spread to the world and lived out in culture, it would be because the church was being the church. They never could look to the state for help to make this happen.
But sometimes I get a little bit afraid of the separation of church and state, because I think it gets misunderstood. Church and state should be kept separate; politics and religion never should be. While church and state need to be kept separate for all of our safety, that does not mean politics and religion should be kept separate.
Now, what do I mean by this? I simply mean that your faith should inform the way you vote. When you get to the voting booth, you should not check your faith at the door, and go into the voting booth as a secular, non-religious person, and come out and pick your faith back up and then be a Christian.
We are called to be Christians everywhere we go—at home, at our workplaces, in our cars, when we shop, everywhere. We should not try, then, to not be Christians when considering how to vote. After all, political issues are often religious issues. The disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor is not simply a political issue, it is a religious issue. The war in Iraq is not simply a political issue, it is a religious issue. Abortion rights is not simply a political issue, it is a religious issue. The legality of euthanasia is not simply a political issue, it is a religious issue.
The fact that we are Christians does not mean that we will all agree on how to view those issues religiously. For instance, when considering abortion, some of us may be convinced that life begins at conception and therefore abortion is wrong because it ends a human life. Some of us might see it differently, and believe that life begins at a different time, and so abortion is permissible early in a pregnancy up to that time. We might both be good Christians who understand the matter differently. It is true that one of us is right and one of us is wrong, but we can still acknowledge that the other person is a Christian.
Further, we might agree religiously on something and still not agree on how to address it politically. For instance, two people might agree religiously that abortion is wrong, but then disagree on political philosophy. One might say that if abortion is wrong, it should be criminalized, outlawed. The other might say, “No, abortion is wrong, but I don’t think it should be made illegal. I think that the church should do all it can to provide for babies and mothers so they don’t have to choose abortion, but I don’t think there ought to be a law.” Here, again, these people are both Christians but they have different political philosophies. One is right, and one is wrong, but we can still acknowledge that the other person is a Christian.
Where it gets dangerous is when we try to separate politics and religion. And so we look at issues like abortion and Iraq and euthanasia and we don’t really care what God thinks. We say, “Those issues are political, not religious;” and then we completely take God out of the equation and we try to make sense of those issues without God. And we cannot make sense of those issues without God. When we try to make sense of them without God, we wind up making it about ourselves.
For example, think about taxation. I can think of good, valid reasons why people might believe that higher taxation is morally right. After all, scripture clearly shows us that God is passionate about the poor, so why should some of us get obscenely rich? The rich should have to share with the poor and that way it’s more equitable for all of us. I can also think of good, valid reasons why lower taxation is morally right. After all, remember when Jesus meets the rich young ruler? The man comes up to him and says, “What do I have to do to be right with God? I have kept all the commandments since my youth.” Jesus says to him, “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” He doesn’t tell the person to go fight for higher taxes or better welfare laws; he seems to say that we should serve the poor by giving extravagantly to them directly, rather than waiting for some government to tell us to. Do you see? There are valid, good reasons why Christians could go either way on this. I do think that one is right and one is wrong, but I can understand why other people would disagree with me.
But we often don’t really engage questions like this about the issues. Instead, we vote based on what we perceive our self-interest is; or we vote based on the way another person tells us to; or worse, we vote because we believe stuff like this that comes in the mail and tells us the other person is a sub-human pig who would kick you as soon as look at you. Just like we have to consciously resist other kinds of advertising sometimes, we have to consciously resist this message or we’ll start to demonize our enemies too.
Does Jesus care how we vote? Yes. Oh yes. Like we saw when he was questioned about taxes, Jesus knows we have a foot in each of two worlds. One foot is in a political, earthly kingdom, while one foot is in the kingdom of God. And because we have a foot in each world, we are never going to see eye to eye on everything. That will not come until that great day when the Lord returns, and reveals all truth to each of us. I always imagine on that great day that all of us Christians will look around at each other, and maybe the first thing we will do is apologize for all the stuff we got wrong. And then we will enter into a great feast, what Revelation calls the marriage supper of the Lamb, where we see clearly Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
But until that day, we must vote thoughtfully and prayerfully. We must ask ourselves how God sees the issues and we can discuss with others what they think so we can have an honest exchange of ideas. We pray, and we seek God, and we ask Him what He would have us to do, how we should vote. And then we walk into the polling place not only as citizens of the world, but as citizens of the true Kingdom.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Sorry, folks--I thought my sermon was on my home computer (where I am now). Turns out it's at the office. I'll post it tomorrow.