One of the things you will learn about me as we grow together is that I generally avoid politics in the pulpit. I avoid talking about politics because one of the blessings of the Episcopal Church is that we represent a wide range of political viewpoints. Though some would like to categorize our church as liberal because of some of our national Church decisions, our membership is diverse. Most of the time our diversity is a gift. Our diversity means that we cannot become an echo chamber, always preaching to the proverbial choir. We will have differences of opinion, we will argue and debate about how scripture is applied in modern life, and we will be forced to agree to disagree when we come to the table each week. We are one of the rare denominations who walk that fine line well, and that ability is one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church.
The curse of our diversity means that we will rarely be on the same page about an issue on any given Sunday. That reality is most glaringly obvious on a Sunday like this one: the first Sunday after one of the most contentious elections in modern history. As I step into this pulpit today, I am aware that there are people in this room who feel like we made a good decision on Tuesday – a decisive vote to do business differently on a national level. I am aware that there are people in this room who are gravely disappointed by the decision we made on Tuesday. They feel a range of emotions, including sadness, disappointment, hurt, anger, fear, and threat. I am also aware that there are people in this room who do not put too much credence in what happened Tuesday. They may have voted, but they did not feel like there were any good options, and so they were resigned to be dissatisfied with whatever the outcome would be.
The trouble with our scripture lessons from Luke and Isaiah today is that they tempt us to conflate what has happened in our political sphere this week with the kingdom of God. Teaching at the Temple, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. When asked when this will take place and what the signs will be, Jesus’ answer is dire. He warns of false prophets; wars and insurrections; nations rising up against each other; earthquakes, famines, and plagues; betrayals by family and friends; and personal arrests and persecutions. Conversely, Isaiah prophesies of the coming kingdom: where there will be no weeping or distress; people will live into old age; people will stay on their land and their fruits will prosper; and the wolf and the lamb will feed together. We could look at these two worlds – the world of destruction and judgment and the world of the peaceful kingdom and easily say, “Well because my candidate won or lost, we will be dealing with either the day of doom or the day of the peaceful kingdom.” The scripture today tantalizingly tempts us to look at these last five days and say with either dread or joy, “The kingdom of God has come near.” But I would argue that that kind of conflating is not only false, but also ascribes too much power to humans.
Eight years ago, I voted for Barak Obama. I remember feeling like he could bring us into a new era. He talked about hope, and I felt filled with a sense of hope and renewal. He made a lot of promises, many of which felt in line with what I would call gospel living. When he took office, I remember holding on to that sense of hope. I should not have been surprised years later when I became disappointed with some of Obama’s decisions. My idyllic sense of hope began to deflate, and I remember several people talking about how disappointed they were – as if Obama was a false prophet or failed messiah. As soon as that rhetoric surfaced, I realized the fatal flaw of my vote of confidence in Obama. I had placed Obama in the role of Messiah – someone who would bring about the reign of God. Suddenly, I realized how unfair, and quite frankly, unchristian, that expectation was. Obama would never be the Messiah I wanted because I already had a Messiah. No president could ever represent Christ effectively, because we only have one Messiah. Not until I had that realization was I able to see politics a little differently. Though I strongly encourage us all to be involved in the political life of our country, and I also strongly encourage us to use our Christian ethics as a moral compass in electing officials, I am also keenly aware that no political servant can ever be a messiah, because every political servant is a flawed human, just like you and me. Likewise, I am also ever more aware that Jesus was not a Democrat or a Republican, because political parties are made up of flawed human beings with flawed abilities to fully represent the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So where does that leave us? Are we supposed to step back from political activism if the political system is inherently flawed? Scholars have debated this issue for centuries. In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon argued that Christians should be in the world, but not of the world. They argued that, “The Confessing church does not take as its primary aim the transformation of the world through the political route of the State. Instead, [the Church] seeks to transform the world by creating a counterculture of people who live under the reign of Jesus. In this counterculture ‘people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world’ (46). In doing so this counterculture church becomes the people of the cross, demonstrating God’s love for the world. The most ‘effective’ thing the church can do is to become the ‘actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith’ (46) in a hostile world.”[i]
Here is what I know: the kingdom of man is not like the kingdom of God. I say that not as an excuse to hide in a bubble, but as a salve for our wounded spirits when we see how far apart the kingdom of man can be from the kingdom of God. We could leave church today with our hands thrown up in the air, feeling like the two are different and there is nothing we can do to change it. But that is not what Hauerwas, Willimon, or even Jesus want from us today. In Jesus’ prediction of doom and personal persecution, Jesus also says something simple and almost comical. He says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”[ii] Our political system is not perfect. We are not a perfect country. We hurt each other and we suffer at the hand of one another. But that lack of perfection and the presence of hurt is no excuse to not work on bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth. The prophecy of Isaiah is not some pie-in-the-sky dream about what happens when we die. The coming of Jesus meant the inbreaking of the kingdom here on earth. In Christ’s absence, our work is turning this kingdom of man into the kingdom of God. The vision from Isaiah is just that: a vision for us to align our steps, and to do our work. The vision of Isaiah is not a Republican vision or a Democrat vision. The vision of Isaiah is the vision of God: of taking “the original creation that the Divine called good,” and “transforming that creation into something new.”[iii]
After this contentious election, I would love to tell you that everything will be okay – that God will magically make things right. But Jesus tells us today that he needs us to do our work. When Jesus tells those gathered that they will have the opportunity to testify, he also tells them, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[iv] Things will be bad before the kingdom of God reigns over the kingdom of man. Our political systems are not capable or perhaps even interested in bringing about the reign of God. That work is ours to do. But Jesus promises that he will be with us, giving us the words as we work, empowering us to right the ills of this world, strengthening us for work of kingdom making. And you are in the right place this morning to prepare yourself for that work. Today and every Sunday we offer you the chance to cry out to God, to confess your own complicity with sin, to learn and be formed into a disciple of Christ, to be strengthened with the holy meal, and then to get back out there in the work of bringing about the kingdom of God. If you need to linger today a little longer at the altar rail, with your anger or your grief at what happened this week, by all means do it. If you are emboldened by what happened this week, then take that sense of victory and turn it into kingdom work. But before you leave today, remember that each of us, in all our diverse opinions and experiences are needed to testify and help each other testify. We need each other and our Messiah, the Christ. He will give us the words when the time comes so that we can create a world where the lion and the lamb feast together. Amen.
[i] Steven Kopp, “Book Summary: Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas,” August 21, 2015, as found at https://slasherpastor.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/book-summary-resident-aliens-by-stanley-hauerwas/ on November 11, 2016. The page numbers are page citations from Hauerwas and Willimon’s book.
[ii] Luke 21.13.
[iii] Mary Eleanor Johns, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 290.
[iv] Luke 21.14-15.