Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 30
Today, the last day of September, marks the end of my fourth month as the rector of Holy Comforter. Now, I hope you would agree that in my preaching I have stuck to good, religious topics. I’ve discussed youth ministry, a vision for our church, spiritual practices, trust among ministers. I’ve focused on the Christian life and the Church.
But today, with just over a month to go until the presidential election, I am going to preach on politics. Don’t worry – I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. I’m not going to use the pulpit as a political platform. But go ahead – squirm a little in your seats, look uncomfortable. Nervously glance around the room. Okay, let’s go.
I sincerely believe that the darkest tragedy in American politics today is the fact that we are so easily divided and confused. Depending on your political bias, you can watch news programs that cater to your beliefs. You can tune in to radio hosts that agree with you. You can read newspapers that you know are either left leaning or right leaning.
And along with those divisions, come the attacks, the finger-pointing. The fear of the other. You can feel good about not trusting the other. It’s okay to cast judgment on the other side. We are encouraged to be smug. Both right and left tell their people that the other side is just plain stupid, or worse, evil.
Again, this is the real tragedy in American politics today. We are all too happy to hate one another. We see an Obama yard sign and get all hot under the collar. We see a Romney bumper sticker and get all indignant. The real tragedy, the real issue at hand in America right now is that we would prefer to live in our own political echo chambers than to collaborate and listen to others. We’ve been told and retold than the “other” is our enemy, and that there is just no way of working with them, and that we should chop them off and cast them away. That we would be better without them.
I hope and pray that I am not raising awareness of a new issue for you. I trust that you sense this too. That all the way from the top down, from Capitol Hill to our news media to our own kitchen table discussions, there is a distinct lack of cooperation. We have lost the ability to compromise, to see the goodness in the other.
This is a poison. A poison that has infected our Church as well. The Episcopal Church has suffered mightily from our inability to listen and cooperate. One side says something, and the other side gets all bent out of shape. Then one side wants the Church to do something, and the other side takes their marbles and plays somewhere else.
It’s tragic. It’s awful. It’s terrible that we don’t know how to sit down with people we disagree with, and figure out how to listen. And then seek ways forward, not because we agree with one another, but because we want our Church to be successful. The hope is not that we get everybody to think the way we do – the hope is that we get people who think differently to focus on God’s Kingdom.
So why am I preaching on such a sticky subject? Only because Jesus preached on the same stuff. After seeing a stranger doing things in the name of Jesus, the disciples get all bent out of shape. They say, “Hey Jesus, so there was this other guy doing miracles in your name. And we had never seen him before! What a jerk, right? So we told him to quit it.”
Jesus sees the tragedy in this. He says, “Do not stop him. Whoever is not against us, is for us.” Even people we don’t know, even people we don’t trust, can be working toward the same goal.
This week in our Gospel of Mark study, we hit upon this idea exactly. We looked at the list of the twelve disciples in Mark’s gospel. There are all sorts of different people in that ragtag band of misfits. There is Simon the Zealot, who may very well have been a first century terrorist, going about killing Roman soldiers. And then there is Matthew, a tax collector who worked for the Roman empire.
On the surface, through the world’s eyes, this would be impossible. By all measures, Matthew and Simon should hate each other. They should distrust the other’s motive. They should be divided. But not so with Jesus. Whoever is not against us, is for us. Matthew and Simon are called together to work for the same mission, for the same goal, for the same God. They probably never agreed on anything, save for the fact that God’s Kingdom is more important than any of our paltry divisions.
And as far-fetched and fictional as it may sound, this unity through Jesus is still possible today. Earlier in my ministry, I was involved with a men’s breakfast and bible study. A small group of men, usually no more than six, gathered early on Wednesday mornings for breakfast tacos and to read from the bible. This group drew from all parts of society: professors, priests, a drug addict, a salesman, and a couple retired guys. One of these retired guys grew up in deep East Texas and spent his whole life working for oil companies. Another guy had retired after working in factories for his entire life, and was a dedicated union man. Needless to say, these two men disagreed about everything. Not a week went by when some political topic would come up in the conversation, and these two men would butt heads. But here’s the amazing thing – they didn’t hate each other. They trusted each another. They ate breakfast tacos together and talked every single Wednesday. And they worshiped together on Sunday. And what drew them together? What was it that abolished their divisions? It was Jesus.
Through the world’s eyes, these two men should have been divided. The world would have wanted one to accuse the other of being a socialist. The world says that one should have accused the other of being an elitist. But these two men realized that if they succumbed to such pettiness, then God’s Kingdom would suffer. The unity of the church – that small group of men talking about Jesus and eating breakfast tacos – would have been severed. Whoever is not against us, is for us.
Finally, Jesus concludes this passage with a seemingly gruesome choice. A choice that makes us either shiver or scratch our heads. Either chop off offensive parts of your body or languish in the fires of hell. I really don’t think Jesus is speaking about our physical bodies, I believe that Jesus is speaking about our body of law – the things we tell ourselves and the rules we follow (see N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God). So what Jesus is saying is this: chop off the rules that tell you to hate the other. Cut off those ideas that say it’s impossible to cooperate with others. Make the choice: live by rules of the world – live by division and hatred and spite, and live a life of loneliness. Or cut off the rules of the world, throw mistrust and schism and fear into the fire; and live in cooperation and solidarity.
Because, remember, when it comes down to it, what happens in November is not about your faith. Whether you watch Fox News or MSNBC is not about your Christianity. Christians don’t follow political parties, we follow Jesus. Christians don’t sacrifice their lives for Democrats or for Republicans, we sacrifice for God. We cannot allow political preferences to fracture our common mission of preaching God’s love for all people. Our allegiance is not to the elephant or to the donkey, but to the Lamb (As always, many thanks to the Rev. Nik Forti for this beautiful phrase).