Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: The Church’s Stand in this Political Climate.
Keywords: politics, partisanship, reconciliation, justice, stand where Jesus stands, Confession of Belhar.
I once read a book about something or other
that began with a story about cartography.
Cartography is the science of making maps
an illustration of the terrain and topography of a place
so that you can know where everything is,
and you can find out a way to get from here to there.
It wasn’t all that long ago that we didn’t know where everything on this planet was.
Well, we still don’t know.
Human beings haven’t been to every spot on the bottom of the ocean floor
but we’ve almost been everywhere else
and our maps have gotten pretty good, more or less.
As a kid, I used to hold the atlas and study it intently
as our family would drive for hours on a summer vacation.
With a good map, you can find anything, it seemed.
Everything was known, understood. Just follow the map.
But it isn’t that simple,
and even today we sometimes make mistakes.
In 2017, The Dallas News reported on a 24-year-old driver
who had embarked on a solo road trip to the Grand Canyon.
She was in the middle of the Arizona desert when she realized
she only had about 70 miles or so worth of gas left in the tank.
Not an issue, Google Maps assured her.
She was only 35 miles from the highway.
Well, Google was wrong,
and told her to turn down a non-existent road
which led to some non-existent spot on the map
and she ran out of gas, out in the middle of nowhere.
She was fortunate.
She had 18 days worth of food supplies with her—
water, dried fruit, goldfish crackers, apparently—
She put ramen noodles on her dash to cook them.
She made a giant ‘HELP’ sign out of rocks,
and she was eventually found and rescued…no thanks to her map.
But stories like that are rather rare these days.
We generally know where things are, and can find a way to get there.
There was a time when that wasn’t so. When exploration was more mysterious.
And people, nevertheless,
ventured into territory where they didn’t quite know what they’d find.
The stories about this are often dominated, for good or for ill,
on European exploration, major voyages of the explorers
Vasco De Gama or John Cabot,
Lief Ericson and Ferdinand Magellan.
And they would set sail with a crew and some food supplies
but with no google maps to help them,
just the stars and a sextant,
and some rudimentary maps that showed what they knew at the time,
what they guessed was out there,
a northern passageway to India, perhaps,
and then some nebulous warning about the void.
Some of them thought that if you go far enough you’d fall off the edge of the earth.
My favorite description of the area that was unchartered territory
were the maps that would feature a drawing of some sea creature
with the words “thar be dragons”
Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.
I was thinking about all of this as I was working on this sermon for today,
because a sermon explicitly about politics, at least for us,
is kind of like sailing into the unknown,
not knowing what we are going to find,
except for the apt warning “thar be dragons,”
suggesting that a wise and level-headed person
would just not go there, and stay at home where you know where everything is.
This is a somewhat peculiar thing for us, though:
a discussion about politics and the church
is much more common in other expressions of the Christian family
whether it be the African-American church
or the Roman Catholic or Evangelical world,
churches in Latin America or Asia or Africa.
We, maybe too often, avoid a direct conversation about it in our community.
Maybe that’s because we’ve heeded the advice
and have chosen to stay away from the dragons.
But it isn’t quite true that we avoid the topic,
because there really is no way to avoid politics
and no preacher who takes the bible seriously,
and no person of faith who looks to Jesus as their guide and their savior,
can do so either.
Our word ‘politics’ sometimes gets confused,
and it may help for us to break it down a little bit.
It has its origin in the Greek city-state, the polis,
which was the basic unit of society
and simply meant something like: the public realm.
From that word we get our modern words “police,” and “policy,”
both of which talk about the way we seek to provide order and the common good
in the public realm.
But, for the Greeks,
and for the Hebrews,
there was not much of a distinction between the public realm
and other parts of our life.
Laws and jobs and entertainment and religion were all wrapped up together
even as different groups mingled together and tried to figure it all out
often with considerable difficulty and conflict.
It wasn’t until the around the renaissance and the protestant reformation
that we started separating our lives into little spheres,
the public and the private, the religious and the secular.
It was Martin Luther, the protestant reformer,
who started encouraging people to find something faithful and valuable
in both spheres of their life: their activity in church, and their life of work.
These two areas—church and work—began to diverge
and our modern sensibilities that there are public matters, community matters,
on the one hand,
and individual matters, or private matters, on the other, took root.
To suggest that maybe we shouldn’t talk about politics
but should stick to private topics of faith,
might be rooted in that distinction first promoted by Luther,
even if he wouldn’t have said that the church should avoid matters of public import.
I haven’t found a very good reason for why we mainline protestants,
as we are sometimes called,
shy away from the topic of politics.
Maybe we don’t talk about it very much
because pastors know we get complaints about it, and we do.
I was asking around the last few weeks
and I don’t know a single preacher
who hasn’t heard someone raise a concern
that they are bringing politics into their sermons.
Which is maybe a peculiar complaint to make,
given that the Scriptures have some pointedly political things to say.
But I think there are two or three reasons for it.
One reason is that we’re just exhausted by everything these days.
Everything that is happening in our lives just wears us out.
The care we provide our families.
Our jobs, our relationships, our classes at school. Exhausting.
Sometimes even our recreation is exhausting.
Keeping up on all the latest television shows is impossible.
One of our kids is watching a show that has gone on for 15 seasons.
It will take her months to binge watch every episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Exhausting. I get tired just thinking about it. (Though I’m sure it’s lovely)
And then you add to that the weight of our world:
climate change and ongoing structural racism and the opioid and suicide epidemics
constitutional crisis after constitutional crisis in Washington DC
poverty and hunger and homelessness
and, yeah, it is a lot.
Sometimes, when pastors are told that people do not want to hear politics at church
what they mean is that they are exhausted,
and they are looking for an escape from all of that.
Church is supposed to be a shelter from the storm,
a refuge from trying to do something about all these things,
some of which seem insurmountable or intractable.
I think that’s fair, and maybe the answer to that
should be at working on our over-stressed lives
and the fact that Jesus says “come to me with your burdens and I will give you rest,”
not an avoidance of the things that burden us,
but a sharing of them, together, in community,
a way to understand them that gives them meaning and purpose.
Church is supposed to be a repose, but because we help each other out
not because we escape our world and seek a hallmark version of it instead.
A second reason people do not want to hear politics might be related to that first one:
people know that we disagree about how to address our common problems
and that some of that disagreement is just baked into us.
People of good will can honestly come to different conclusions,
propose alternate solutions,
bring different points of view.
And as we grow more and more polarized,
we’re worried: talking about these things might tick some people off,
might make me get into a squabble.
It is like going to Thanksgiving Dinner with family and you know you don’t all agree
and isn’t it just better not to bring it up than to get into a discussion about it
with THAT uncle?
Well, sure, sometimes. And disagreement for disagreement sake,
or just to be disagreeable, isn’t the point.
Jesus would often not engage in a particular discussion if the time wasn’t right
but it wasn’t that he would avoid it all together.
Maybe our failure is an impoverished imagination of how we can have
these sorts of conversations in a meaningful way,
how we can care for one another even in disagreement,
how we can recognize that people can each seek the common good
and follow Jesus even from different vantage points, not just our own.
Last week, when I was away in San Antonio,
I heard a sermon about complaints leveled at Jesus.
Even Jesus got complaints.
This one was that he sat and ate a meal with Tax Collectors and Sinners,
and that is no good.
In response, Jesus told them a parable about a sheep that got lost,
a coin that was misplaced, and the effort to find them.
Maybe, Jesus suggested, the efforts at staying connected to people
that are seen as political opponents,
allow us to love one another more deeply, more authentically,
than it would if we only ate and congregated with people who are just like us.
But Jesus didn’t shy away from challenging conversations.
He told stories about poverty, economics, hunger,
taxes and the Emperor and the Roman state.
He healed on the Sabbath and talked about the ancient practice of Jubilee
which was when debts were forgiven and slaves were freed from bondage.
And in the readings we lifted up today,
Jesus is described as sharing the good news of God
heralding the coming of God’s Kingdom.
That language is significant.
Jesus didn’t talk here, at the start,
about the coming of God’s FAMILY. Or God’s COMMUNITY.
Or even God’s CHURCH.
All three of those are words that the gospel writers
use in other places about other things.
They had those words available to them.
But, according to Matthew, and the parallel story in Mark,
when Jesus starts his ministry,
he is talking about the coming of God’s Kingdom, the realm of God.
And Luke, which has a similar story about Jesus’ baptism and early ministry,
gives it an even stronger twist.
Even before Jesus was born, says Luke,
Mary saw Jesus as proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor
who has filled the hungry with good things,
lifted up the lowly,
brought down the powerful from their thrones.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, frames the birth of the savior in political language.
And then we have the story we’re used to reading on Palm Sunday,
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem
with the crowds waving branches
and laying down cloaks on the ground
as they say to Jesus:
Blessed is the King
who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!
Those words, ascribed to Jesus, who died on a cross
at the hands of the roman authorities,
with the title “Jesus Christ King of the Jews” over his head.
any church that preaches and studies and seeks to follow Jesus
cannot avoid the political.
Jesus preached and taught and led by example
on matters that impact the public realm, the polis,
and Jesus proclaimed that God was working on making all things new
in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.
The other thing that people mean, I think,
when people say they don’t want to hear politics at church
is either that they don’t like to hear things that they disagree with,
they don’t want to be challenged,
or they don’t want partisanship being promoted from the pulpit.
There is a difference between the political, and the partisan.
The Gospel promotes something that we might call God’s Politics,
the agenda of the Kingdom of God,
the values and the concerns and the vision that we learn about
from studying the life of Jesus the Christ.
Partisanship describes the different ways that we humans think about these issues
how we group together to try to make a difference about them in our government.
But God is not republican, nor a democrat.
And people with all sorts of sensibilities and backgrounds and partisan affiliations
can seek after God’s Politics.
It would indeed be a mistake to confuse these,
and it would be wrong for a preacher, for instance,
to make partisanship the aim of her preaching.
Good preachers work hard on discerning the difference,
but sometimes, in a polarized environment,
talking about God’s politics can sound partisan.
The Bible has a lot to say about caring for the poor and just distribution of wealth
and treating the foreigner in our land.
In an environment where those are touchy subjects,
we often feel like the Gospel is getting a little close to partisanship
even though the Gospel has plenty to critique all of us on with regard to these things
whether we’re blue or red or purple or green or whatever.
If we can focus, instead, on God’s Politics,
and on allowing people of good will and honest faith
to seek after them, we might do better
and allow ourselves the ability to dwell with our disagreement
and to learn from each other
and to listen to what God is trying to say we should be aiming for.
But that might mean that we all should allow room for criticism
and for growth
and for change
and for transformation
so that God’s Politics may help transform our society into the peaceable Kingdom.
But it also means that, as a church,
we are called to work it out, and to work on it, so that we can see where the Gospel
leads us, not just in our private lives, but in our public concern too.
Our significant question today
is “The Church’s Stand in today’s Political Climate.”
Trying to explore that terrain is like sailing with a map into unchartered waters
not because it is dangerous,
but because we’re working on discerning God’s path for us
several thousand years after the life of Jesus.
How do we do that?
We Presbyterians gather together,
we pray and talk and listen to one another
and seek, together, to discern the mind of Christ.
We value people of good will, from various partisans perspectives
that together seek the Politics of God.
We value telling the truth, humility and a willingness to grow
trusting that God can make us stronger and more faithful
if we trust in God more than our own biases.
We consider the confessions of our church
like The Confession of Belhar, which says:
that God has revealed God’s self as the one
who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity,
is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged,
that God calls the church to follow God in this;
for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry…
that the church must therefore stand by people
in any form of suffering and need,
which implies, among other things,
that the church must witness against and strive against
any form of injustice…
that the church as the possession of God
must stand where the Lord stands,
namely against injustice, and with the wrong.
That’s the guidance of the Confession of Belhar.
We hold it together with The Confession of 67, which says:
“To be reconciled to God
is to be sent into the world as [God’s] reconciling community.
This community, the church universal, is entrusted
with God’s message of reconciliation
and shares [God’s] labor of healing the enmities
which separate [people] from God and from each other.
The church’s stand in this political climate has to be with Jesus.
Which means it has to be political.
It has to call for peace, and justice, and reconciliation,
all three essential components of the Kingdom of God.
How that gets worked out on specific topics takes work.
I can point you, someday,
to particular examples of how our denomination has tried to do that,
seeking to stand with Jesus for the poor and the oppressed,
to bring healing to the sick and relief to the captive,
seeking not to close the door on tax collectors and sinners,
holding in tension our various perspectives in God’s care and compassion.
In some way, we address this every time we get together to listen to God’s word.
But the summary answer to the question is that the church stands with Jesus,
and encourages each of us to do so as well
whether in our private lives, or when we consider political questions
and engage in matters of public importance, the common good.
The church challenges all of us to address our exhaustion,
or our worry about division,
or our privilege about not wanting to deal with these things,
by trusting in Jesus’ call that, in him, a new kingdom is dawning.
May we, dear friends, learn from Jesus
what a welcoming, active, justice seeking, reconciliation centered community
means in this day and age,
and as Christ’s people, may we help find ways that God’s politics may take root
for the good of our communities, and the good of God’s beloved world.
May it be so.
 The book was Edwin H. Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury Books: New York, 2007), though the story he told was serving a slightly different purpose.
 Actually, that phrase wasn’t found on old maps, at least none that survived. It was found on an ancient globe. More information in an article by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/no-old-maps-actually-say-here-be-dragons/282267/
 It shouldn’t be missed that the word ‘good news’ is the same as ‘gospel,’ the genre for the books about the life of Jesus. That good news, or the “euangelion,” has roots for angel, or heavenly messenger. The gospels are telling us about the good news of the coming Kingdom of God.
 Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 10.7 Scriptural references there include Isaiah 42:1-7, Luke 6:20-26, Luke 4:16-19, Luke 7:22, Psalm 146, James 1:27, Micah 6:8, Amos 5:14-15, 23-24, Psalm 82:1-5, Leviticus 19.15.
 Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 9.31
Image Credit: Martin Waldseemüller, Carta Marina Navigatoria, 1516, found at https://fuckyeahmaps.tumblr.com/post/19601335973/martin-waldseem%C3%BCller-carta-marina-navigatoria (accessed Sept 21, 2019)