December 11, 2011
The Rev. Adam S. Linton
This morning’s sermon will be a little different. For some time I’ve been planning on addressing our congregation on how we will navigate our way through the present election cycle. What I mean by this is our spiritual navigation as a community of faith in a time of great social division. Such divisions aren’t merely “out there.” We carry them within us and among us. So this will not be an entirely easy enterprise. It will require mindfulness; deliberate spiritual practice. Most of all, it will require remembering Who it is to whom we belong—Who it is that makes what we are at the Church of the Holy Spirit.
It is this vivid remembrance that must frame our engagement with the questions: Who are we, in this place? What are we about?
American politics have always been rough and tumble; vigorously contested. However, the current level of polarization seems especially troubling, doesn’t it? It’s just assumed, now, that people of different perspective are not just wrong, but ill-intentioned. And, of course, in a context where “truth” is equated with “winning,” the notion that the other side has any insight worth considering is often simply put out of civic consciousness.
People tend to associate with those of similar perspectives and interests. Like gather with like. So we frequently don’t even encounter uncaricatured difference. We hear the caricatures constantly: What Democrats really want is the revolutionary overthrow of our entire social system. What makes Republicans really happy is polluted waters and children going to bed hungry. In our increasingly segregated political environment it’s much easier to maintain such dismissive absurdities.
Institutional Christianity now increasingly shares in the general political segregation of society at large. Different churches seem to be readily identifiable as characteristically right or left, liberal or conservative. This doesn’t mean that all their members agree with the viewpoint that happens to be in corporate ascendancy. But the feelings and the sense of belonging of those out of step with the privileged majority viewpoint are very different, aren’t they?
Yes, of course, “all are welcome; all are equal.” But the different brands of church-talk all have their way of making it very clear that some are “more equal” than others! (George Orwell, Animal Farm) Some “get it” (wink, wink), some don’t. Some are members of the enlightenment squad, some aren’t.
The end result, I believe, is that religion (of whatever stripe) all-too-often leaves people in worse shape to participate in the political process. Religions (even those that pride themselves in being non-dogmatic) all-too-often add dogmatism and self-righteousness to polarization. Now folks have even more reason not to listen to one another, less and less capacity for political doubt, more and more confidence that their preferred social sensibilities may safely be equated with the will of God.
So, it’s no wonder that the churches end up helping folks to march in lock step with the standard “total package deal” political options. And God help the poor soul who tries to maintain a position or two out of step with the team!
Most of us feel some form of substantial frustration with the state of things in the United States Congress. Congress, however, is simply the mirror of who we are—and who we are becoming.
Self-righteous romanticisms focus on fixing the bad other people (whatever percentage these might be). And if we can’t fix the others, at least we have to win big enough to neutralize all opposition. Such thinking just produces that many more “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night.” (“Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold) The really “big win” never comes. (And we can be reasonably sure that whatever our definition, it won’t come this November!) In the end we’re still stuck with one another—forever enduring the presence of those whom we try to keep at as great a distance as we can.
I don’t know about you, but that looks to me like a pretty good picture of Hell.
What a world. “Who will rescue us from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24-25)
The Good News is that God has already done the rescuing; God has already established his perfect and eternal Kingdom. “Thanks be, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So now—in response: Our engagement with the need for change in this world—the desperate need for real, beneficial change—always flows out of gratitude. Most specifically including gratitude for “the others,” who may be lying low and keeping quiet right in our own midst. The ones who define the needed changes differently. Real gratitude for “the others,” not patronizingly endured—but cherished. People from whom we even might have a thing or two to learn.
Surprise! This just might be how God in Christ is filling in the picture of Heaven. Right here; right now.
On our part, this requires some space giving. This is why I am scrupulously and deliberately reticent about public identification of my own politics—even indirectly. Have been so for over thirty years of ministry. And this is not because I don’t think the Gospel addresses practical human circumstances! Not because I personally believe that politics are unimportant. Not because I never weigh-in—in God’s Name—on an issue of social challenge. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I must.
The key words are precisely “in God’s Name.” I do not serve on my own time. Not from any sense of personal privilege, but from what I must see as the unlikely call of God and God’s Church, it is my station to stand in this place, utter the Proclamation of the Spirit, and say to you, “Thus says the Lord.”
That should send any preacher into the place of fear and trembling. Lord, have mercy. Not to speak on my own behalf—although that’s always the temptation. With an awareness of my own unworthiness and insufficiency that would be soul crushing were it not for God’s grace: In the service of Christ—who alone gives me the power to do so, I too am constrained to say, “I must be about my Father’s business.” (Luke 2:49 KJV)
The Word of God for the People of God. Nothing less and nothing else. That’s the utterly outrageous thing that must be going on in the act of Christian preaching. And, Oh yes, I know, I know: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 KJV)
So, as our country gears up for a difficult election cycle, here at the Church of the Holy Spirit, may we well remember who it is that we also must be about.
I’m not saying that in our own lives we are to hold back from the civic process. Be involved; engage your best convictions. Vote; I certainly plan to, myself. Go for it.
So go for it. Our system depends on informed participation. I’m so grateful for that. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong in working with those with whom we share political convictions. But let’s be mindful—and loving. Remember this: Even our own best reasoned social viewpoints can’t capture all the truth. Every possible earthly view will have some mixture of insight and blindness. We might have something to learn from those we distain or dismiss. Most of all, we have a greater ultimate loyalty that forms all that we are and do. We have a hope greater than any party, any political perspective, or any candidate can achieve. Psalm 146 speaks in the typical Hebrew hyperbole that’s meant to shake us up:
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish.
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God;
The Lord shall reign for ever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
Hallelujah! (Psalm 146:2-4,9 BCP)
For our greater loyalty there can be no substitute. So let’s be careful—very careful, indeed—about crowning even our best intentioned causes with the crown of Heaven. Whatever they have going for them, neither the Occupy Movement nor the Tea Party rate being cast in the role of “Team Jesus.” And whatever they may have going for them, No; neither Michael Moore nor Glenn Beck are prophets.
So what about “Team Jesus”? Look around. Look around at one another. Look around, friends; specifically in our diversity: Like gathered with unlike, in the power of Christ. May that kind of diversity only grow more and more, right here in this place. As we gather in the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, as we carry out the Great Commission he has given us, we’re modeling a different way of being—and a different way of being together. And just maybe, this is where and how Heaven might be starting to break through. Not yet another impermeable earthly partisanship, so very sure it’s got everything figured out. The world has plenty of those.
We’re talking about an unmet need that the world can’t meet from even its best resources: The power of God to save, heal, and renew. Of course, we work together as the Church, in many ways—but we can trust that Christly Power in the Spirit to work among us in ways far beyond our own ideological management. Sometimes it may not be clear to us how it all fits together. That’s O.K. God is God—and we’re not.
It’s a grand adventure. Of course, we don’t claim that we’ve got exclusive franchise—or that we’ve got it quite yet in perfect form. More “treasure in earthen vessels.” But the treasure is real—and it’s too good not to share, this season and always.
And that, dear ones, is what we are about.
“Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20 KJV)