Sunday, August 28, 2016

"God's Politics"

(Preached on August 28, 2016, at Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia.)

I'm breaking my own rule this morning. In my 36 years as a pastor, I have never been willing or thought it appropriate to use the pulpit to engage in political discourse. My father who was a pastor took the same approach and I think it is part of the Baptist way, focused not only on the authority of scripture, but also on freedom of conscience and the priesthood of all believers.

I've always believed that if we preach and teach the Christian faith, raising up mature, devoted followers of Christ, then we can trust our people to apply their faith in the political realm according to their own informed consciences.

Maybe that's a cop out, an excuse in order to avoid controversy. I know that many other pastors of various stripes have no problem or hesitancy to use their pulpits to critique policies, promote legislation and even endorse candidates. And I know that pastors and pulpits have been used and abused in many ways in our history. For instance, during the civil rights movement, preachers spoke out both for and against racial segregation, all claiming to speak for God.

Another reason for my long silence on political matters is that all my life I have known devout, godly people from across the wide political spectrum. I have shared with you before about my grandfathers, Otis Barnes and Oscar Hill. Grandpa Barnes was a lay preacher in the Nazarene Church and later ran an inner city mission. Grandpa Hill was a Baptist deacon and a union president on the railroad, leading his union to integrate over fierce opposition. Two good and godly men, none finer. Grandpa Hill was a staunch Democrat and Grandpa Barnes voted against FDR four times, a lifelong Republican.

So, I've always known devout, Bible-believing Christians who differed in their political views and I'm certain you do, too. Right here in our fellowship we have a wide range of political perspectives.

But never in my lifetime have I witnessed such a polarized political landscape. Political discourse has degenerated into personal attacks and ridicule, gross distortions of the truth, ridiculous exaggerations, and angry threats of violence. And not just between the candidates themselves.

I am a student of history and I know that politics has always been a mean and ugly business, not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But I've never seen it like this. And we all pay a terrible price for it.

My sermon this morning was inspired by and borrows from a sermon by Dan Meyers, Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Dan reminds us that we live in an age of finger-pointing. You can hear it in the tone of the comments made by candidates and commentators voicing their contempt for the other side. This finger-pointing, of course, serves its purpose. I makes it adherents feel very righteous. I provides great fodder for talk radio and the news networks. It offers the fireworks needed for the fundraising efforts of this organization or that party.

But there is a downside. As long as this tone of anger, fear, and pride dominates the moral and political discourse - as long as this notion prevails that there is a vast Left-wing or Right-wing conspiracy afoot, and those who don't see life as we do or vote as we do are either ignorant or malevolent - we will be these United States in name only. We will see citizens, politicians, and churches alike increasingly polarized into stone-throwing camps on the Right or the Left. We will lack the common cause and combined intelligence required to make lasting progress on the great issues that are of vital concern to both humanity and God.

Seven miles from here an inspirational tower rises 555 feet into the sky and points not to the Right or Left, but toward the heavens. The Washington Monument is known the world over, but some of its aspects have been lost to human sight.

You may not know, for example, that when its cornerstone was set on July 4, 1848, a copy of the Bible was put inside of it. President James Polk had it placed there as a sign of the role that the Bible originally played as the cornestone of this nation's vision and in the lives of leaders like George Washington himself.

On the aluminum cap atop the Washington Monument are engraved two words no tourist ever sees, unless you have a helicopter. The words are the Latin phrase, laus deo, the last words of Psalm 68. Laus deo literally translates, "Praise be to God! Blessed be God!" 

The Washington Monument stands as a reminder that there was a time when at least some clear-thinking Americans saw themselves as living for the praise of God above self, or party, or political action committee, or even above our nation's flag. What I want to ask you today is, what would it look like for more of us to do so in our time? How would it change the way we entered into the political and religious debates of our day if we could avoid the temptation to be finger-pointers and instead live pointing to the praise of God?

The Bible gives us a framework for doing this. We find it in the words of the prophet Micah: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Let me take that last part first, because it is the ground of the next two ideas. It would be good if we could model what it looks like to walk humbly with our God in discussions of religion and politics. There are two implications of that calling. The first has to do with the way we talk to others. Now, let me be dangerously blunt: too many Christians today are modeling their style of political and religious discourse after either the "apostle" Bill O'Reilly on the Right or the "prophet" Bill Maher on the  Left. It may get a rise or a laugh, but it doesn't lead to the praise of God or the enlightenment of others.

We would do well to reflect the counsel the apostle Paul gave to his protege Timothy amidst a season of great conflict in his church and culture: "Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:23-25)

The knowledge of the truth is the second context for humility. Please don't get me wrong: there are times when, on the strength of our reading of God's Word, we must throw our energies into an issue or cause with great passion. Last year I participated in a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill with the International Justice Mission regarding a bipartisan effort to end child slavery and human trafficking, certainly an issue where we can stand with some measure of solidarity. But, of course, it's not always so simple, so black and white.

The first mark of good people - as the prophet defines "good" - is that even when acting with great conviction, they will not be arrogant, but have some humility. They'll be humble enough to ask themselves, "Do I really know the good here, what's right, what's best, what's Christian? Do I know the mind of God in this matter?"

In the heat of the Civil War, an admirer said to Abraham Lincoln that she was very sure that God was on the Union side. Lincoln responded by saying, "My concern is not whether God is on our side . . . I know that God is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on God's side."

This, I think, is where the second part of the prophet Micah's words to us are needed today. It would be "good" if we in the Christian community would always be deeply concerned to "act justly" in the fullest sense. That takes a lot of thought, because God's view of justice defies our neat categories. God loves all people, in all nations, and because people's needs and situations are complex, God's vision of justice is also complex.

I formed a habit several years ago. Each year I read through the Bible in a different translation. It's been a great blessing and a real eye-opener for me as well. I know some of you have a similar discipline. I certainly recommend it.

Reading through the Bible it becomes apparent that God holds some very conservative views: he demands work rather then welfare for the able-bodied (1 Thess. 4:11, 2 Thess. 3:7-13, Eph. 4:28), he sanctions capital punishment for murderers (Gen. 9:6. Ex. 21:12, Lev. 24:17, Num. 35:16-21, 29-34), he esteems the life of the unborn highly (Ps. 139:13-16, Jer. 1:5), he justifies the forceful role of the state in maintaining law and order (Rom. 13:1-5), he confers great wealth on some people and calls this good (1 Sam. 2:7, Eccl. 5:19, Prov. 10:22), and he comes down very hard on sexual promiscuity and perversion and family-breaking of all kinds (1 Thess. 4:3-7, Heb. 13:4), You can see why Republicans are ready to claim God as the source of their vision.

The challenge, however, is that a careful reading of this same Bible clearly tells us that God has some very liberal views, too: he demands radical care for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10, Deut. 15:7-11, 24:19, 21, Matt. 19:21, 25:34-40, Luke 3:11, 14:13, Acts 6:1, Gal. 2:10, James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17) and compassion for the immigrant (Lev. 19:33-34, Deut. 10:19), he calls for massive debt forgiveness (Lev. 25:25-30), he insists on very careful stewardship of the environment (Gen. 2:15, Lev. 25:4, Ps. 24:1) and pronounces judgment on those who destroy the land for their own gain. (Hos. 4:1-4, Rev. 11:18), he commutes the sentences of certain people who've clearly committed capital offenses (John 8:1-11) and calls for a radical inclusiveness welcoming all kinds of people (Gal. 3:26-28), he rails repeatedly against the selfishness and abuses of the wealthy (Jer. 6:13, Amos 3:15-4:3, Mal. 3:5, Luke 16:19-31, James 5:1-6), he calls for the cessation of war (Micah 4:3-4) and a variety of other policies that sound like they might have come right out of the Democratic playbook.

Have you noticed how we tend to focus only on those portions of scripture that seem to reinforce our own biases and perspectives, and we tend to ignore those clear teachings that prod us in directions we would rather not go? But the Bible is not our personal email server. We can't just delete the verses we would rather not put on display.

And then, of course, reading the verses in the Bible is just the beginning. We still must do the hard work of exegesis and interpretation. We dare not lift the words directly from the pages of the Bible and apply them haphazardly to contemporary issues without examining carefully the original historical and cultural context of the scripture, like just picking out a verse from "Two" Corinthians, for instance. It's not that simple, is it?

When we come to the Bible we are crossing a wide divide of two to three thousand years, and until we know with some degree of clarity what they were talking about, we don't really know what we are talking about. The ancient Hebrews were living in a different world, a savage and primitive time and place. The early Christians were faced with an entirely different set of challenges, living under imperial rule in a pagan context, the Greco-Roman culture.

Then, there is the matter of the Bible sometimes being at odds with the Bible. Are we basing our views on the Hebrew laws and practices of the Old Testament or on the ethics of Christ in the new covenant?

The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message states it like this: "The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures . . . The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." That's an important reminder and guideline for us as we try to apply the truth of scripture to the issues of our day.

All of this is to say that we ought to be very careful when we suggest that God is clearly with our own party's platform or that righteousness can be painted Red or Blue. The Bible challenges us to see that God's politics are more complicated and challenging than most of us have the stomach for. That may explain why, in the end, Jesus was rejected and condemned by both the liberals and the conservatives of his day, the liberal Herodians and the conservative Pharisees.

It also explains, finally, why God says through the prophet Micah that it would be "good" for us to "love mercy" more than we sometimes do. Historian Rodney Stark argues that there was one huge factor that helped Christianity capture the attention of the ancient world. It was Christ's revolutionary emphasis on mercy. Stark writes:

"In the mist of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. . . It started with Jesus . . . In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice . . . humans must learn to curb the impulse to show mercy, the cry of the undeserving for mercy must go unanswered. Showing mercy was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up."

This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The truth is we need one another to discern the way of God in our time. To find the way of righteousness that winds through the dark, confused maze of this age, we need the insights and gifts of the whole political spectrum and the whole community of faith. In a world where so many others are ready to condemn those with whom that disagree, it is vital that Christians point us toward the God who still reaches out to touch this world with that redeeming love where justice and mercy meet in the humility and grace of Jesus Christ. Praise be to God!

Let this prayer of George Washington be our prayer today:

I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have the United States in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation. Amen.