“Jesus and Political Conventions”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
July 31, 2016
University Baptist Church
Jesus and the Political Conventions. That’s the title I have chosen for the first sermon among you in 12 weeks. Surely it would be better to do a travel log of the sabbatical, don’t you think? There will be time for that, don’t worry. But this is the topic that is on my mind and heart, especially after we have survived two political conventions in the past two weeks.
I was at a Sacred Harp singing event at Fort Snelling yesterday. One of the singers said to me, “do you give pastoral care for people who have watched both political conventions and are so incredibly discouraged about the vitriol out there, especially the vitriol that wears a Christian face?” Yes, I said. It’s called the church.
One of the things I really missed while we were apart was the opportunity to gather together and make sense of the world. The church, at its best, interprets the events of our world in light of the larger faith story of crisis and redemption. We need each other to tackle what the world throws at us. We need to claim and reclaim the Jesus of our faith, in spite of the Jesus that has been appropriated by the political parties.
I like what my friend and colleague Margie Green has to say on this topic: “Following Jesus is serious business. And every single choice we make has the power to be (and, perhaps, is supposed to be) a transformative one—for not just us, but the entire world. So let go of your feelings about who should or should not be president. Let go of your feelings and your strong political opinions. Take out your yoga mat, open your bible, take a walk in the woods, or sit by your pool with a cup of iced tea. Quiet yourself and listen. And let’s not make any rash decisions here.”
People at both conventions have used Jesus as a political instrument. Both seem convinced that Jesus is on their side or that they are on the side of Jesus. And since they are on Jesus’ side, then to oppose them must be to oppose God. The problem is that folk at both conventions claim to speak for Jesus. Which is religiously correct on this matter? Who would Jesus really support?
Beware of anyone who claims to speak for Jesus, especially politicians and preachers. Trust your own mind and search the scriptures and see if the Jesus in those pages resembles the Jesus preached or pundicated. Test our your theories among people who have done similar homework. I guarantee you will find the Word of God in the discourse.
We claim and sing that we are friends of Jesus. That makes us strange bedfellows with politicians and people with whom we disagree and who make disparaging remarks about other believers.
Leaders fall all over themselves telling them what a friend they are of Jesus and what an enemy of Jesus their enemies are. How would Jesus react to all of this? As far as I can tell, Jesus eschewed political parties and alliances. His major allegiance was to God and God’s people embodied in the poor and outcast.
In today’s scripture, Matthew makes a point of showing how several religious and political movements opposed Jesus. None of them liked Jesus.
There were at least 2 political parties and four religious parties at Jesus’ time. The political parties were the Romans and the Herodians. The religious parties were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. Then there is the Jesus movement, which was beholden to none of these.
In the year 350, the Roman emperor Constantine declared himself a Christian. When the Jesus movement became identified with the empire, it lost a bit of it’s soul. It was originally a protest movement. It became a stabilizing and empire-building and empire supporting system. And each political institution ever since has tried to say that it was the most authentic preserver of the Jesus movement. But would the Jesus of the scriptures build a political and military institution?
I submit that you can only find the true Jesus through being in the church. In church, we read the scriptures, but we consider them together. We argue about them. We invoke the Holy Spirit and then we find out how to get on with it and be a follower of Jesus. That’s what I missed these past twelve weeks.
So let’s look at the political and religious parties of Jesus’ time and see how Jesus would fit into their belief and power systems.
The Romans are the easiest to define. They were the conquering army that took control of Judea a couple hundred years before Jesus. They had a vast empire that kept expanding and expanding. The Romans modernized the backwater places they conquered. They created roads and eased commerce. But Judea was supposedly a theocracy and the Romans thought they were the gods. In today’s scripture, Jesus asks contingent of people to show him a Roman coin. On it’s face was the emperor and the inscription said, “Caesar, son of God.” So, when Jesus told the people to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, he was saying: make sure you don’t confuse the emperor with God.
The Romans imposed martial law and had their police that violently put down any kind of descent. The people of Judea basically hated the Romans because of their brutality. Messiah after Messiah came to overthrow Roman rule. All would be killed and many of their followers were publicly tortured, and their mangled bodies left on crosses that dotted the roads as a threat to anyone who opposed them.
One of the challenges for the people was the international flavor of the culture. There was a pure Hebrew strand and a Greek strand. The Hebrews distrusted the Greeks, or Hellenists, as they are called, and vice versa. The Greeks tended to be more worldly and wealthy than the Hebrews. A dispute arose about who would lead a pure nation, a Hebrew or a Greek, someone of the Davidic line or someone of the Hellenistic line.
The Romans decided that they would side with the Greeks against the Hebrews. They appointed local governors as kings. They all happened to be of the same family and they were all named Herod. The Herodians submitted to Herod’s rule in exchange for peace with Rome. Herod the Great was a fine real estate developer. He rebuilt the crumbling temple mount. He built magnificent palaces in places like Masada. His buildings were huge and he was great, just ask him. But he was also brutal. Remember that when the magi tricked Herod who deceitfully told them he wanted to worship the baby Jesus, Herod engaged in ethnic cleansing, killing all of the male Hebrew babies in the hopes of killing the would-be messiah.
So those are the political parties. The Romans and the Herodians: two versions of the same reality. Rule by violence. There was peace as long as you stayed in line.
The religious parties had varying relationships with the political parties. Remember, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots were all considered Jewish, but even they could not agree with each other about the way forward—kinda like denominations.
The Pharisees were a reform movement of Hebrew people who wanted to restore purity to the people. They advocated religious purity as a way to restore the integrity of the people. They were accused of focusing too much on ritual and not enough on justice. The Gospels paint them as stuck up religious fuddy-duddies who were not interested in the real concerns of the people. Paul was a Pharisee, which explains his puritanism. But they were also nationalists, concerned about the soul of the people who had lost their way by collusion with messy politics.
The Essenes were ascetics who were even purer than the Pharisees. They removed themselves from the conflicts of the day and lived in separate communities. They used baptism as a sign of cleaning themselves from the dirtiness of politics. Some say the John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus were once part of this sect.
The Sadducees tended to be Hellenistic. They were wealthier and a bit more aristocratic. They denied the resurrection and the existence of angels and things spiritual. They were the materialists, maybe the realists. They got into league with the Herodians from time to time, which made them suspect in others’ eyes.
The Zealots were the religious party that was fed up with acquiescing and making nice with the Romans. They were also Hebrew people who wanted God to rule, not some earthly king. They sought to make their case known by any means necessary, including the first century equivalent of terrorism.
As far as I can tell, the Jesus movement adhered to none of these religious or political parties. We can tell, because they opposed him. In today’s scripture, we find the Herodians conspiring with the Pharisees and the Sadducees against Jesus.
Jesus never aligned himself with a political party. Anyone who tells you that Jesus would support his or her party is not talking of the Jesus I know. The Jesus movement was by definition a protest movement that pushed the powers to be more faithful to the God who welcomes the outcasts,
the God who stand beside the poor,
the God who wanted people to be kind to one another, to eschew violence, end slavery and inequality,
the God who was killed as a supposed insurrectionist.
This is the God of Jesus. And it’s better than a political party platform.
I submit that neither party is a real friend of Jesus. They might be admirers of Jesus, but as a party they can’t be all followers of the same Jesus. In fact, they follow different Jesuses. But don’t feel so bad. It’s been this way for the entire history of the church. And so those of us who love the Jesus that we do need to claim the Jesus that we believe in. It’s not enough to say, “I’m a Christian.” We need to show it. I like what Corey Booker said on this subject:
“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all (God’s) children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I'm not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
Jesus would always advocate for the poor and the outcast.
You can’t be a racist and a follower of the true Jesus.
You can’t be a follower of Jesus and also support discrimination.
You can’t be a follower of Jesus and support violence.
You can’t be a supporter of Jesus and support meanness.
But lest you think this is a partisan sermon, you cannot be a supporter of Jesus and support drone warfare that kills innocent children.
You cannot be a supporter of Jesus and still be a supporter of the destruction of our planet in the form of drilling and polluting that has grown exponentially during the past seven years.
The political conventions were actually a welcome distraction from all of the attacks across the world that has left us in a constant state of grief. It is so easy to denounce all of this violence and we do—so much that it makes us numb, wondering when and where the next shoe will fall. We’re seldom even surprised when it happens again. Horrified, enraged, but not surprised. The worst part is that we can’t pin it on a nation-state or race. Even though leaders want to paint it all in racist and anti-Muslim terms. It’s easier to deal with a binary of good and evil. It’s much harder to deal with the evil that exists in all of us, that propensity toward violence, that prejudgment that we use against terrorists, that lack of realization that we are part of the culture that produced such monsters. All of the talk about how to change begins, as the Lynx players rightly stated, with us.
So as we enter these last 100 days or so before our presidential election, take a breath. Pray. Don’t take the bait of insults and rage. Be better. Remember whenever someone invokes the name of Jesus, consider the one who came to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to se the prisoners free, and to bring about the land reform that is the year of jubilee. When someone invokes the name of Jesus, listen to what they are saying and consider if they are following the same Jesus that you are.
As William Barber said, “it’s annoying to hear people say a lot about what God said so little about, and so little about what God said a lot about.”
As people invoke the name of Jesus, consider that we follow one who was opposed by political and religious parties, because he was such a threat. But what he brought was incredibly good news:
Good news of a radical welcome.
Good news of welcoming the outcast.
Good news of advocating for the poor and destitute.
Good news of being a voice for the voiceless.
And if you are on that side, then the scriptures tell us that that’s where we’ll find God. Remember that a candidate is not our savior. Jesus is our savior. And that’s a pretty good place to start.
So, be the change you want. Don’t succumb to the easy us vs. them. Support candidates that match the values that you love, and then push them to be better. As Ted Cruz said, “Vote your conscience.” And prepare to be disappointed, because no candidate or political party is perfect. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
As we enter this season, find your voice. And meld it with the voice of God we find in the Gospels. It’s an epic battle for the soul of our nation. If you are a friend of Jesus, and I know you are, then take a note from his party platform:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12
The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor. Luke 4:18-19
That’s what a friend of Jesus says and does. And it starts with us.