Better Angels

Sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2016 || All Saints C || Luke 6:20-31

What are the two things your grandparents told you never to talk about? Politics and religion. Well, today I’m going to break that rule. Don’t worry: I’m not going to talk about specific partisan issues or endorse candidates. Rather, I’m going to speak to a common misunderstanding about the intersection of politics and religion in America; then I’m going to talk about Jesus, who was a pretty polarizing political figure in his own right; and then we’ll finish up with some stirring words from Abraham Lincoln. Continue reading “Better Angels”

Our better angels: The two things you’re not supposed to talk about (part 3)

Election day falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every even-numbered year. That day happens to be today.* West Virginia has early voting and the polling place happens to be next door to my church, so I took advantage of that a few weeks ago. But I’ve been keeping on top of the political scene in the country: the campaign tactics, the exchanges, the (gotcha!) media, the blustering pundits and blundering surrogates. I’ve at times in the last weeks been both enthused and disgusted, hopeful and resigned. Every sign of progress I see shares the spotlight with the tired old prejudices of the past. I hope with all the fervor of my heart that, no matter the outcome of this election, the United States continues to strive for that “more perfect union,” to which our Constitution sets its lofty heights.

This hope stirs in me a refrain that has been playing in my head for days: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”lincoln

Abraham Lincoln spoke these words on March 4, 1861. The dust of 150 years has made these words no less relevant today. Chorus. Union. Bonds of affection. These are powerful words that tell of a truth, which these years of dust could never obscure: We can do great things when we come together, when we embrace the power of unity. This is Lincoln’s charge to us all. This is the truth which we entrust to our next president. And this is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples and for all of us: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)

Jesus lived this prayer for unity when he welcomed everyone to come to him, and all those who were thirsty to drink. He lived this prayer when he ignored the racial barriers between Jews and Samaritans. He lived this prayer when, dying on the cross, he created a new family for his mother and his beloved disciple.

But uniting is not enough. Uniting is only the exposition of the story. We must unite for something. We must come together to fulfill those tasks which the better angels of our nature invite us to accomplish. Too often, the ingrained talking points that showcase the worst of partisan bickering shout down these better angels. Just last week, I was sitting at Panera bread and overheard a conversation between two businessmen — the gist of their chat simply rehashed the tired old stereotype that all people on welfare just sit at home watching Oprah. Surely, these two suits would have more political acumen than to recite such a line of attack, I thought. But no. In election years, by some strange alchemical process, saying something enough times makes it true, no matter the veracity of the claim. In the absence of any real hope, any real truth, whoever steps up to the mic to fill the dead air is the ruler of that fifteen second soundbyte.

But our better angels fill in that dead air. When we turn our attention inward, we will find those angels speaking the words of the only Truth out there worth subscribing to, the words of life that God writes on our hearts. These words will never fit into a soundbyte. They will never succumb to the tired old prejudices. They will only urge us to join together to accomplish God’s work on earth. The mystic chords of our better angels’ chorus echo with Jesus’ words: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)

We can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and shelter the homeless and nurse the sick. We can respond to that image of Christ in the faces of the least of Jesus’ family. Far be this from some misguided philanthropic diversion to the benefit of Oprah’s sweatpanted viewership. We are called, not just as Christians but as human beings, to help those who are suffering, to bring hope to those who are despairing. I ask you: how much better will we be, how much more unified, when today’s least of these are in the position to help tomorrow’s?

This is not the time for a bootstraps mentality. This is not the time to recline in the illusory comfort of self-interest. This is not the time to relapse into a tired old hoarding way. Be touched by the better angels of our nature.  Know that this is the time to give. This is the time to tug on your neighbor’s bootstraps. This is the time to enter into the kinectic delight of unity and labor for the kingdom of God on earth.**


* Incidentally, figuring out when Election day falls is similar to figuring out the date for Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Fun times.

** Here is a list of links to help you get involved:

The ONE Campaign

The United Way

Habitat for Humanity

Heifer International

Episcopal Relief and Development

CNN: Impact Your World

Redefining the good news: The two things you’re not supposed to talk about (part 2)

In the first installment of this series, we looked at how the phrase “separation of church and state” fails to comprehend the complex relationship that those two broad entities share. Fealty to such a misunderstood doctrine can blind us to the influence our faith in God should have on our political decisions. No decision is made in a vacuum. Acknowledging this, each person chooses which voices to distinguish from the cacophony clamoring for attention. She contemplates what her context values as true. As the cacophony and the context press upon her, the faithful person attempts to attend to that still small fluttering within, which is the deep intersection between her consciousness and God’s movement.

Just as decisions (political or otherwise) are not made in a vacuum, the Gospel does not take place outside of a specific context. Indeed, the dusty realism of the Gospel makes for compelling reading and even more compelling living. When Jesus of Nazareth steps onstage, the scene is set, the players chosen. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth (according to Mark) intentionally borrow the political language of the day: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus imagines a new definition for that word euangelion (Gospel, good news). No longer is “good news” to be proclaimed for another Roman military victory or another birthday of a Roman emperor. No. The kingdom of God has come near! This is the Good News of Jesus.

If Jesus is redefining Roman talking points, the political nature of his message would be hard for his contemporaries to miss. Their difficulty came from another angle: to whom does this nobody from a backwater like Nazareth belong? Is he a Pharisee? A Zealot? A Herodian? An Essene? He can’t be an Essene because he would’ve never left the desert. He can’t be a Herodian because he is speaking out against the Romans, and those Herodians are living just fine as Roman stooges. He can’t be a Zealot because he keeps talking about peace and seems not to have the stomach for gutting the odd centurion. And he can’t be a Pharisee — just look at the company he keeps!*

These groups made up the political landscape of early first century Israel, a land which had been under one foreign regime or other for several centuries. The current occupier, the Romans, governed with both the carrot and the stick. You could get very rich or very dead depending on how you interacted with Rome. Most got very enslaved or at least intimidated into meek submission. But Jesus, who fit no known political category of the day, spoke out in the politically charged atmosphere, spoke out with no fear and people listened.**

People listened. People watched. They saw the eyes of the blind opened and the legs of the lame strengthened. Could this Jesus possibly be the One they were expecting, the son of David who would lead them out from under the yoke of Rome — the Messiah? Peter thought so, but when Jesus told him what was to happen, Peter couldn’t handle it. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die on a cross. The Messiah was supposed to lead the nation in an uprising and sweep all enemies from the land. To hear the people of Israel tell it, the Messiah was a political office — a judge/prophet/king, a conflation of all the powerful figures from the past.

But in a further re-imagining, Jesus took the messianic expectation and turned it on its head. He would have no part perpetuating the cycle of violence. After his death and resurrection, his followers began seeing Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah in different parts of the same Hebrew scriptures — the Messiah as the suffering servant, the one who demonstrated the utter necessity in beating swords to ploughshares.

Jesus stepped into a world dominated by the politics of fear and division and blame and hate. He immersed himself in the grimy, bloody mess of that world, but did not succumb to its tactics. In the end, that world killed him, but not before he proclaimed and lived out a new way, the way of the kingdom of God. It is to the political implications of this kingdom that we turn in the conclusion of this series, “The two things you’re not supposed to talk about.”


*Thanks to Brian McLaren’s concise description of the political nature of Jesus’ context. Read more in his The Secret Message of Jesus. Also, if you read just one more book this year, read his Everything Must Change for the best discussion of faith and our lives as citizens of the planet earth I’ve ever read.

** Of course, Jesus also got very dead. But happily for all of us, the dead bit is only part of the story.

Generous engagement: The two things you’re not supposed to talk about (part 1)

With a mere eight days left before the presidential election and with a friend to whom I really can’t say no coaxing me to step into this quagmire, I find my thoughts turning to the intersection between faith and politics. This is not just any intersection — this is the intellectual version of what my seminary friends call “dysfunction junction,” which I imagine gives 1 in 10 drivers in Alexandria, Virginia symptoms of PTSD. At that intersection, Braddock Road, Quaker Lane, and King Street all cross, and many vehicles trying to brave the passage do not make it out unscathed.

With the image of dysfunction junction planted firmly in my mind, I turn it to faith and politics, while the collective cry of grandparents everywhere echoes that those are the two things one is not supposed to talk about. I plan to talk about the political dimension of Jesus’ message in the next installments of this series, but first I must clear something up from a political science perspective, and here it is:

The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in our official political documents. Media Pundits and Joes Six-Pack alike invoke these five words everyday, but all they serve to do is reduce a much more complicated relationship into a morass of error and misunderstanding. Religion is mentioned exactly once in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” That’s it. That’s all we’ve got. First things first: the amendment deals specifically with congress. Churches can seek to impact the government all they want; the amendment concerns the power of congress, not the curtailment of the voice of the church.

Now, over the years, the Supreme Court has decided myriad cases by interpreting these two clauses of the First Amendment. The court gets involved simply because there is no complete wall of separation between church and state, as much as Thomas Jefferson wanted one. In 1963, the Court set a standard by which the government can indeed infringe on someone’s free exercise of religion as long as the government has a “compelling interest” and the resultant action is the “least restrictive” it can be (Sherbert v. Verner). My constitutional law notes from college have 33 religious cases cited, and those are just the important ones. The court has looked at issues such as school prayer, expulsion for religious motivations for failing to salute the flag, blue laws, drug use in religious ceremonies, wearing of religious symbols on military uniforms, displaying religious imagery on government property, polygamy, school vouchers, tax exemptions…*

All this to say that the government entangles itself in the religious establishment, no matter how much it tries not to. And the religious establishment, especially in the decades since the rise of the religious right, is unafraid to wade into the waters of politics. So, while the “separation of church and state” may be a nice shorthand for keeping us out of the messy business of theocracy, the phrase does not describe how our system functions.

People of faith should not fear to let their religious beliefs guide their political decisions. Rather, inviting God to be a part of your political decisions can lead to a more generous, sensitive engagment among those with whom you disagree. Of course, if invitation is corrupted by a toxic expectation that God is going to rubber stamp everything you decide is right, then this generosity and sensitivity will disappear. A prayerful reflection of the values Jesus teaches and the life he calls us to lead, along with a prayer for a discerning heart, help us to act responsibly and effectively in the political sphere.

With that sticky business about the separation of church and state cleared up, we can turn to the political message of Jesus’ teaching. Stay tuned for the second installment of “The two things you’re not supposed to talk about.”


*It would make for an extra boring post if I went into the actual legal stuff in here, and I’m not qualified to do so anyway. I have a Polical Science degree, not a JD. Suffice to say, the government (usually) tries hard not to break its own rules, but sometimes it does. Most of us just don’t notice most of the time.