Tuesday, 11 November 2008 17:16

November 9, 2008 Sermon

“Imagine a World Beyond Empire”
Matthew 22:15-22
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 9, 2008
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Where were you on November 4, 2008?  Who were you with?  What were you doing when Ohio was called and it became a mathematical certainty that the first person of color was elected to be the President of the United States?  We’ll likely remember those moments for the rest of our lives.  This was an historic moment in our history as a people.  While President-elect Obama was quick to say this was not an election about race, but an election about the past verses the future, let’s face it, we have come a long way as a country.   It took until 1870 for the 15th amendment of the Constitution to allow African American men the right to vote.  Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy requirements did away with those gains until Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights act in 1965.  And 43 years later, we now have a president-elect who is African-American. 

There was a wonderful editorial cartoon in this morning’s Star Tribune.  It was a two-panel item.  In the first panel was a picture of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus in 1955.  In the second panel was Barack Obama sitting in a presidential limousine in 2008.

It’s an awfully long time to have waited.  Women have also waited a long time and while they came closer than ever before, they will likely have to wait another several years.  But what is true today is the reality that the American Dream is more than a simple platitude.  We have been a part of history this week.  Hopefully, we will never be the same again.   Never again will we be so quick to demonize because of race or class or age or gender or gender identity or affectional proclivities.   Never again will we be so flippant as to judge someone because of their political party, the size of their car or house or portfolio.   There is something about this week that makes people believe again.  Believe in the possibility that something radical can happen and it can be very good.

 Barack Obama will not do everything right.  He will not single-handedly change everything that’s wrong with the US.  But he has inspired people to take up their mats and walk.  He has inspired people to get involved in the political process.  He has inspired people to think “yes we can” in a world that says “no you can’t” especially in places like Florida, Arkansas, Arizona and California. 

He has inspired folks to think outside the box about international unity and opportunities.  It is not lost on the rest of the world that we have turned a corner in our country.  There was dancing in the streets not only in Chicago and New York and Washington and North Minneapolis.  There was dancing in the streets in Africa, in Europe, in Central America, in Canada.  They feel the relief and the hope that a new day has dawned on the United States and by extension and influence, the rest of the world. 

There is a palpable sense of relief and hopefulness ushered in by this presidency.  We have not necessarily left racism behind, but we have said, it’s time for a new day and the old rules of the massive subtle expectations embodied in white privilege no longer apply.   

We’re making up the new rules.  That’s messy work but it’s creative work.  What do those new rules look like?  While Barack Obama is the president-elect, he has become such a person because he has inspired people of all walks of life, young and old alike to have their voices heard.  Hillary Clinton did the same thing.  This new energy into the electoral process is a very good thing.  But it will be messy. There will be chaos.  We have already seen it in the financial markets.  But out of confusion and chaos comes creativity.  That’s the hope that is before us.
The challenge now is to hold fast to the highest ideals of the country and to hold all elected officials accountable for a new vision of the future.
You know, I picked this morning’s scripture months ago and I thought it would be a good thing to focus on regardless of who is chosen as president.  After all, it talks about taxes.  Folks love to divide people on taxes.  Who likes paying taxes anyway?  Nobody.  But most of us see it as at least a necessary evil in order to pay for things like schools, police, taking care of the least of these, even health care.  We like driving on decent roads and having our bridges stay up.  We don’t so much like paying for what we might consider waste or the bad investments—like a costly and unnecessary war for instance.  Or for programs to bail out the rich at the expense of the poor.  That’s where thoughtful people can disagree and we can have a decent debate. 

In today’s scripture, we see that some things don’t change.  Jesus was in his campaign mode and he was answering questions on his own version of the straight talk express.  He had already given his stump speech, known now as the Sermon on the Mount.  This is when the media started asking him questions in order to trap him.  The media in his day were called the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They were both groups who had some difficulties with the Roman rulers.  They did not like the place to which Rome relegated either of them.  So they asked a question that was not so much a gotcha question as it was a conundrum for them.  Knowing that Rome makes themselves rich at the expense of the rest of the people, especially in the rural parts of Judea, should we engage in tax revolt?  Remember that the penalty for defying Rome was crucifixion, so watch how you publicly answer this question.  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus answered yes, it’s right to do your civic duty, then he could be labeled a hypocrite for seeming to side with the Romans for funding their cruel and brutal dictatorship.  If on the other had he said don’t pay taxes, resist, resist, resist, then they could call him an insurrectionist and have good reason to turn him in for crucifixion. 
Remember that the media did not ask him if it was all right to pay taxes.  They asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar—the emperor.  Implied in this is the question of whether or not the emperor was just.  The emperor, it was believed, was put there by God.  Therefore to deny the emperor was to deny their understanding of the power of God. 
What to do?  Well, Jesus was smart.  He answered the question by asking a question.   He was going to turn the question on its head and test their loyalty.  He asked them about the coins in their pockets.  They pulled out a Denarius.  Jesus asked whose head was on it.  They said Caesar’s.  Jesus asked whose inscription it had, and they said the Emperor’s—easy enough questions and answers.  Archeologists have unearthed these coins over the years and sure enough they have the head of Caesar on them and they have an inscription too.  The inscription says, “Caesar, the Son of God.”  As in, the only Son of God.  Jesus didn’t say them, “pay taxes,” but said, “pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and pay unto God what is God’s.”  The media were asking about loyalty to Rome.  Jesus responded by testing their loyalty to God.

In our day, we luckily don’t have an emperor.  But we do have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable for their ideals and their promises for the least of these.  We also need to remember that our elected officials are not God.  They will need God’s people to help them remember the words of the prophets which take on a new meaning today.
When Mary realized that she held Jesus within her womb, she sang this radical song of liberation:

My soul magnifies YHWH and my Spirit rejoices in God my savior.  For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.  Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.  For the mighty one has done great things to me.  Holy is God’s name whose mercy extends to those who fear God from all generations.  God has shown strength with the holy arm, has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, has brought down the mighty from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-55) 

When Jesus preached his first sermon, he unrolled a scroll of Isaiah and said,

“The Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of jubilee—(a land reform and an end to slavery) for all of God’s people.”  Today this is fulfilled. (Luke 4:18-19)
The prophetic focus on empire has always lifted up those left behind by that very imperial power.   In the person of Barack Obama, there’s an expectation, dare we call it an audacious hope for change we can believe in that those left behind will finally have a seat at the table and make some real changes. 

It’s going to be a long and bumpy road and some apple carts will likely get overturned on the road to change.  It’s not empire change yet.  It’s leadership change which is a good start.  It’s also a ground-up change which needs to be remembered and nurtured.  For it is in Empire’s DNA to pump up the needs and desires of the leadership in power sometimes unwittingly, sometimes intentionally to the exclusion or expense of those at the economic, social and political bottom.    

That’s why the language of being president for all of the US and not just those who voted for him is so important.  Transforming that vision into a reality will take constant vigilance and work which is vital for successful leadership. 
I have heard people say that Martin Luther King is smiling down from heaven on the events of this past week.  I believe that’s true.  He also sees that there is a lot of work ahead.  One of the things that has impressed me about President-elect Obama has been his predilection away from demonizing his political opponents.   This is a major tenet of nonviolence.  You criticize the actions of the people with whom you disagree, but you never denigrate their character.  This is a basic step in creating the beloved community.  It is finding a way to transform your enemies into friends.  This is the opportunity we have before us.  I have been very impressed with his refusal to malign the opposition, which is, granted, easiest to do when you are the front-runner.  But nonetheless it sets a new tone of cooperation and respect for which we have been hungering.  
For his part, John McCain did this too in his election night concession speech.
We need to hold people accountable, regardless of whom our elected officials might be. 

As John Lewis said on election night, we need to celebrate this historic time and look forward to a bright and possible future.  But we also need to look back on all of the people who gave their lives that something like this might one day happen.  That is the feeling that was behind those tears we witnessed and participated in on Tuesday night.  We have seen a turnaround, an historic and blessed event occur.  Now we need to do what the church does.  We need to celebrate, sure, but we need to remember who God is. 

God is a God of justice. 
God is a God of peace.
God is a God of creativity and freedom and liberation and acceptance and blessing. 
God rejoices with us when we are audacious enough to do good against the most insurmountable odds. 
God is the groundswell of the liberating power out in those streets. 
And in as much as we join God in that struggle and that liberation and that audacious hope, then we are being the change we can believe in.
We need to not only celebrate this historic day for Barack Obama and his family. 
We need to remember that it is an historic day for each of us. 
We need to remember that it gives us the hope and opportunity to see things a bit differently. 
To take a chance on behalf of justice and equality and peace. 
To step out where it might seem foolish, buoyed by a community and by a God who rejoices when her people take their lives and dignity back.

“I don’t care whose picture and insignia are on the coin,” says Jesus.  “What I care about is that your loyalty is to God who brings ultimate justice, ultimate peace, ultimate liberty, ultimate freedom, ultimate liberation to a people who need it so much.”
That’s a world I imagine beyond the narrow constructs of this empire or that. 

But for now, we celebrate and get to work.  The church’s work is to remember our highest ideals and our greatest vision and work like heaven to implement it. 

Let me close by once again remembering the words of James Welden Johnson whose words are immortalized as the Black National Anthem.  They, too take on new meaning:

Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring. 
Ring with the harmonies of liberty. 
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies. 
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. 
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun. 
Let us march on till victory is won.