Friday, October 21, 2011

Politics As Unusual

Sermon preached October 16, 2011

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

In 2001, Time magazine named Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas “America’s best theologian.” His memoir Hannah’s Child was named by Publishers Weekly one of the best religion books of 2010. I tell you this to put some context to what I am going to share next, because it is going to shock you. In a lecture written for youth, Hauerwas said the following:

How many of you worship in a church with an American flag?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1st as the “NewYear”?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that recognizes “Mother’s Day”?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

(Working With Words, 116)

There was an episode of the television program MASH in which Hawkeye Peirce was having wonderful dreams of his childhood in Maine, then the dreams would turn disturbing. Childhood friends would be injured terribly. The dreams disturb Hawkeye so he consults his friend and fellow physician Sidney Freedman, a psychiatrist. Sidney tells him that the dream is really peaceful, but in a war zone, reality is the nightmare and the reality is creeping into Hawkeye’s dreams.
The church in which I grew up had a large stained-glass window picture of Jesus holding sheep. It is a wonderful and gentle picture of Jesus, and often that’s the Jesus we want to hear about. Then reality breaks in, and here reality breaks in in the story about Jesus himself – a story fraught with politics.
Some Pharisees, who are none too fond of Jesus and his popularity as a religious teacher, along with some Herodians, want to trap Jesus. They pose a challenging question – “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This conversation takes place in Jerusalem, an important city in Roman occupied Palestine. It served as the capital for King Herod, the king Rome allowed to rule the Jewish people in Palestine, though under their authority and control. The Herodians are supporters of Herod and his rule. Many Pharisees questioned that rule, though here they make common cause with the Herodians to try and trap Jesus.
The Roman tax was levied annually on harvests and personal property, and was determined by registration in the census. Jewish authorities administered it. The tax put a heavy economic burden on the impoverished residents of first-century Palestine. The tax was not only economically burdensome, it also symbolized the occupation of the Jewish homeland by the Roman Empire. It was another reminder that the Jewish people were not free. (see Feasting on the Word; Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, 63)
The question to Jesus is masterful. Either response puts him in a precarious position. Support paying the tax and risk losing credibility among the common people who were following Jesus. Reject the tax as unlawful and risk being branded a seditious teacher by the Roman authorities. The question is masterful, but the response even more so. “Show me the coin used for the tax…. Whose head is this,, and whose title?” The coin had a picture of the emperor on it. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What makes this response particularly revealing is that there were two kinds of coins in first-century Palestine. Jewish currency contained no images of humans or animals. Images were considered religiously inappropriate. The other type of coin was the Roman coin which had the picture of Tiberius Caesar with an inscription proclaiming him as the divine son of god. So what kind of coin do Jesus’ questioners have – the Roman coin. Their possession of the coin makes it clear that they pay the tax, support the system in some way, and therefore their question to Jesus was anything but sincere. Their credibility takes another blow while Jesus’s reputation for wisdom is enhanced.
So what? This is all very fascinating stuff, but what difference does it make to us? Jesus is certainly not as provocative as Stanley Hauerwas – or is he? Hauerwas is trying to get us to think more deeply about the relationship between being a follower of Jesus and the culture in which we live. We tend to assume that we live in a culture that is rooted in and supports Christian faith. There are Christian roots to our culture, to be sure, but Hauerwas wants us to think more deeply about what that means for us today. It is what this story about Jesus does, too.
In his statement, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus is relativizing loyalty to Caesar. In a culture that was proclaiming loyalty to the emperor was loyalty to God, Jesus is encouraging a more thoughtful and critical response. Loyalty to the emperor is possible to a degree, but loyalty to God is the stronger claim on our lives. We should not take Jesus words to suggest a separation between two distinct realms of life either – church and world, each with its separate claims. Loyalty to God shapes our political loyalties, for in the end, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), which means our political life should be shaped by a sense of what God desires for the world God created. Arrangement of our social and political life needs to take into account God’s dream and desire for the world. Politics as unusual.
And what might God want from our social and political systems? What is God’s dream for the world? The Bible often uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” to get at this question. What are some of the important features of the Kingdom of God? You shall not render unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19). Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other (Psalm 85:10). God’s dream for the world is a society of love, mutual support and justice. It is a society in which the development of each person is enhanced by what she or he gives to and receives from every other person. It is a responsible community where justice is enjoyed by each person and peace characterizes relationships with God, self, others and nature. Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff calls this a vision of shalom and argues that it is “both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 72; other material taken from my unpublished doctoral dissertation, p. 357-358). This wonderfully large vision for human social life goes beyond politics, but it gives direction to politics. It lets us know, in the words of Jim Wallis, “God wants the common good” (God’s Politics, 32). Another way of saying this is that God desires social arrangements that work for all.
If we take that seriously in our day and time, we are struck by a sense that there is a great deal in our current social and political situation that is not measuring up. As different as they are, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement seem agreed that things are not working well for all. These two movements have very different analyses of the primary problems and dramatically different solutions, but they are an indicator that some things are not working. There are other indicators. 15% of our population now lives in poverty – some 46 million people (New York Review, October 27, 2011: p. 4). The Duluth NewsTribune reported this week that Duluth is the least-affordable rental market in the state with 56% of the renters here paying more that 30% of their household income on rent. The story reported that the median household income for renters in Duluth in 2010 was $19,230, 31% less than the median income for renters statewide.
Jesus words in our context do not provide a political platform or a set of policy recommendations. He instead offers a vision, a horizon, a direction. When some define politics as “who gets what, when” then this is politics as unusual. God desires the common good. Shalom is God’s cause in the world and our human calling. We Christians, we people of God who follow Jesus follow him into the world, a world that is complex, difficult and challenging. It is a world that is not where God would have it be and we need to be willing to ask tough questions, even of some of our cherished ideas.
This is tough stuff, but it is rooted in good news. The good news is this, we are God’s – loved by God, valued by God. God desires social arrangements that work for all because God values all. For many who are hurting in our current economic environment we know that the scars are not simply economic, but are etched into our souls. When we want to produce but cannot, we hurt. When we want to work hard and provide for our families, but are not able to, it pains us deeply. Know this, God’s love for you, God’s love for us, God’s valuation of us, is what defines who we are not economic and political systems that measure only productivity and material accumulation.
It is because all are loved by God that we seek systems and social arrangements that work better for all. In taking up this cause of God in the world, we seek to give God what is God’s. Amen.

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