Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
I still remember that first Sunday coffee hour in my first parish after seminary, where a distinguished gentleman came up to me and said, “Fr. Eric, I hope you will not preach politics in the church.” I thought what he really meant to say was “Fr. Eric, please do not preach any sermons that come in conflict with my own political affiliation.” The problem for any preacher today is that political ideas of all appetites infuse our every day lives, and we are inundated with their messages 24/7.
There was a time when news organizations set aside only a small section of the paper for partisan stories. I remember when commentators expressed alternative ideas about what was going on in the world through political cartoons that served as artistic vehicles characterized by metaphorical and satirical language. Today satire has taken a back seat and all bets are off for and all sides engage in direct and public conflict with their opponents.
Policymaking, policymakers, and the interactions between them are no longer motivated by common values, but now focus on personal attacks and undermining their opponents’ standing. In the aftermath, we are becoming less of “One Nation under God” and more of a loose affiliation of partisan tribes of ideology and power, led by the leadership on all sides of the civil conversation. None of this is really anything new in the history of human civilization.
The Politics of Jesus
In today’s gospel reading, the Pharisees (political allies of the local tetrarch King Herod) brought a targeted message to Jesus as he approached Jerusalem the seat of political power in that area of the world. Trying to instill partisan fear in their opponent, the Pharisees said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Some scholars assert, knowing the characterizations of the Pharisees throughout the gospels that they were really not trying to warn Jesus, in order to help his cause. Jesus probably understood their partisan motivation, and he responded with his own rebuttle, “Go and tell that fox for me ….” The Pharisees took a policy jab at Jesus, and he in turn responded with a warning to Herod, calling him a fox, or a “sly and crafty man.”
If there was a newspaper cartoon characterization of this partisan standoff between these first century challengers, the artist may have portrayed Jesus as a He-Man, WrestleMania-like character returning the threat of Herod, for another threat in kind, but that was not what was going on in the story. Jesus was being really clear about his mission, his purpose, and the fact that nothing would stand in the way of God’s Kingdom, not even a little policy spat with the local government official.
God’s Kingdom vs. Worldly Kingdoms
The mortal threat for Christians in the first century Roman Empire was real and it was a life-threatening proposition.. Dan Clendenin explains, “By confessing Jesus as Lord, they rejected Caesar as king. Loyalty to Christ the king was absolute and unconditional, whereas fidelity to the Roman state was relative and conditional.”(2) Believe it or not, we are so divided in our nation today that for we 21stcentury Christians, following the Way of Jesus may come with is own set of risks; our friendships and family connections. Some of us believe that the Way of Jesus (the way of mercy, grace, peace, reconciliation, and service) becomes secondary to our partisan ideologies, and often we try and mold the gospel message to fit our own partisan proclivities.
We all need to use caution with that approach to being a disciple. Paul reminds us “in the epistle this week that Jesus gave us a “pattern” and “example” to follow, namely, that of “our citizenship is in heaven;” our first allegiance is always to God. Imagine how things would be today, if the Way of Jesus formed our core platforms for all the policies, programs, and initiatives for all the problems and opportunities we all face. Following the way of Jesus for Christians today is not so much about trying to fit our faith into a political ideology that pits one side against another on particular issues. Following the Way of Jesus means we literally set differences aside so we might embrace, emulate, and carry on the way Jesus ministered, served, and became self-giving love. Christians must Jesus to form how we live, how we love, and how we advocate for others, and yes, maybe even how we participate in civil society.
Jesus warned the Pharisees, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus was really clear about his mission, where he was headed, and what he was teaching his disciples to do. Healing and deliverance are the central aspects of Jesus’ mission and daily work, and it is the central aspect of our mission as the church and as individual disciples. We Christians must be about the ministry of reconciliation, because our baptismal promises demand that we, “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.” I would even add that we do those things even for the ones we do not like, and the ones with whom we have political differences.
The parishioner from my first parish call, who wanted to keep politics out of the pulpit I believe failed to realize that even Jesus’ message came in conflict with the political powers of the world. Clendenin asserts, “A simple but important point — there was a deep antagonism between Jesus and the political powers of his day and thus the sharp response by Jesus, “go tell that fox I will do what I do.” (2)
Further, Jesus also said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jerusalem was the seat of power for that little section of the Empire, and it had a history of quieting (or killing) those opponents who called the city to repentance and change. Throughout the biblical narrative, God’s people have always had to decide between following God’s way, or following the way of their own human desires.
Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The dilemma we Christians face is whether we think our principles define what the gospel says, or does the gospel define what our principles should be. Clendenin explains, “The Jesus of the gospels proposes no political program, but instead something far more strenuous, something “scary, dark and demanding.” No state or political party can indulge in the self-sacrifice that Jesus demands when he calls us to lovingly serve the least and the lost.” (2) The Way of the Cross proclaims to us that our relationship with God and with each other (a relationship of reconciled love) is much more important than any ideology, policy, or program that we might support and thus, the church becomes a lighthouse of hope for folks moving away from one another over differing ideas, and can do so so under One Lord, One Faith, and One baptism.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This caricature of Jesus ‘mission as a mother hen caring for her chicks, stands in juxtaposition to the cartoon image of the WWE wrestler political opponent who came to thwart the power of a local king bent on killing him. David Lose writes, “Jesus employs a feminine image for himself and, to the degree that we confess Jesus reveals his essential character and disposition.” (5) Jesus was not a political antagonist to Herod who wanted to upend the political system of the day. Jesus longs to bring us (all of us) lovingly and gently into his arms of reconciling love, regardless of where we stand on the issues of the day. Despite those loving arms calling us all together, it is harder to follow Jesus today, because choosing the naturalization journey to Divine Kingdom citizenship comes with a great cost.
Lent gives some space in the year to intentionally focus on growing in Christ. Lent can be a time to break down walls and come together through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ. We should try a new Lenten discipline this year, and seek out, with an open and compassionate ear, those family members, friends, and colleagues with whom we have differing ideas and create some space for conversation. It would be a challenge, but it could be a blessing to gather with our own opinionated friends and intentionally read some scripture and study together, and to explore together, where Jesus stood on all the issues of this life, and on the many struggles we all face every single day.
Could you imagine if we tried just that one little practice for a few weeks what might happen. I wonder, if we could all be changed, and would we together, agree to choose the way of justice, peace, love, mercy, reconciliation, respect, self-giving love, and mutual service. In a time when dividing political commentary seems to be the norm, a good stump speech (or sermon) on a mountain or plain on the subject of reconciling love, sure sounds like what Jesus might preach if he were seeking our partisan allegiance, but wait, he is.