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Sunday, February 7, 2010

unChristian: Hyper-Political (Mark 12:13-17)

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.”

Religion and politics. Two of the three things you’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner party. Funny then, that these two things so often find themselves in bed together, isn’t it?

Today we are continuing in our series of messages on the theme unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters. These messages respond to some compelling research done among 16-29 year-olds about negative perceptions they have about Christianity and the Church. Today’s message responds to the fact that an overwhelming majority of young people think Christians today are too involved in politics. My hope today is that this discussion of politics and power and how we Christians relate to it will draw us closer to God, for it is only when we lack the power of God in our lives that we seek the power of the world. May we pray.

If we’re going to talk about politics, it would seem some definitions are in order. Politics is defined simply as “a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. It consists of social relations involving authority or power.” It comes to us from the Greek, and is derived from the “polis,” which roughly translates as the public arena, and is closely related to the word “policy.”

So then, policies are made to influence things in the public square. And politics refers to anything related to the dynamics of how a group makes decisions. Politics are everywhere. You can’t go anywhere and get away from politics. If there are two or more people gathered in one place, you have politics.

Did you know that there are even politics in the Church? No, really, there are! And again, that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Church leaders and members relate to each other. Authority is exercised. We determine how things are going to be done.

But, there are also negative connotations to church politics. I have witnessed church people do some of the most unChristian things to each other and to the overall good of the congregation out of their own jockeying for power and position. I have seen people throw the good of the whole congregation under the bus simply to promote their personal agenda. I have seen church leaders lie to each other. I have seen church leaders who were part of making a decision and who voted for it begin to publicly attack it as soon as the vote was taken. I have seen backbiting and backstabbing, and church leaders who are as sweet as pie to each other’s faces, but will cut each other to ribbons the moment they walk out the door. I have seen the phone lines light up the moment a worship service or a meeting is over so the gossip can be shared about who said what, why they said it, and what they were wearing. After all, we all know that three of the fastest means of communication are telephone, teletext, and tell a United Methodist woman.

Certainly, this is one example of hyper-political Christians. Too much focusing on me and my agenda, on my desires and wishes, and a willingness to sacrifice the good of the whole in order to see my own cause advanced.

Now, this is starting to sound more like American governmental politics, isn’t it? And young people perceive that Christians are too involved in promoting partisan politics. They look inside the church and they see Religious Republicans and Devoted Democrats, proselytizing politicians, right-wing recruiters, partisan pushers, devout defenders, fearful faithful, lying leftists, Christian conspiracists, and believing bullies. They see a lot of people who are drunk on their own power and promoting their own ideology and who seem to have forgotten that the church is, first and foremost, an expression and microcosm of the kingdom of God – a place where God is worshipped, and where those who worship are transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, not molded as members of a political party.

Does the name Chan Chandler mean anything to you? How about East Waynesville Baptist Church? You may recall that back in October 2004, Pastor Chandler his congregation that anyone who planned to vote for Democratic Senator John Kerry should either leave the church or repent. Then in 2005, he led an effort to kick out nine members of the congregation who had, in fact, voted for John Kerry. Chandler later resigned after the congregation imploded under the controversy.

If you want to stir up controversy, start talking politics. Here in Mecklenburg County, about 45% of voters are registered as Democrats, about 30% are registered as Republicans, and about 25% are either registered with minor parties or choose to remain unaffiliated with any political party.

I expect that every Sunday when we gather for worship, I am looking into the faces of people who represent this diversity. I expect that, among those who are looking back at me, we have Republicans and Democrats and Independents. I expect that there are liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists. We have people who only trust Fox News and people who only trust MSNBC. A side note here – before you trust either Fox News or MSNBC too much – did you know that they’re owned by the same parent company? The conservative dollars that are sent to Fox News and the liberal dollars that are sent to MSNBC all end up in the same pot? Rupert Murdoch, it turns out, is a genius who has figured out how to make money off of both sides by exploiting their suspicion and fear of each other.

We all have political opinions and convictions. We all have things we feel passionate about and ideas about the things that are best for our nation and ideologies and practices and policies that we resonate with. And certainly, some of these things line up more with the platform of one political party or another, and so if you find yourself in general agreement with such a collection of ideas and policies and practices, you may choose to label yourself as a Democrat or a Republican. But where it gets sticky is when we decide that God is also a member of our particular party, and that we are somehow justified in hating, attacking, and villanizing the people and the policies of those with whom we do not agree, because, obviously, God is a member of our particular political party.

Friends, I simply have to remind you. God is not a Democrat or a Republican or a libertarian or a communist or a tory or a whig. I have no interest in being the pastor a congregation that identifies itself as a Republican church or Democratic church, a conservative church or a liberal church, a progressive church or a traditional church, an established church or a cutting edge church. I am only interested in being the pastor of a Christian church – a church whose people have built their collective identity on the person and teachings of Jesus the Christ and not any particular political party or ideology.

I remind you of one of the teachings of John Wesley we touched on last week – “In matters that do not strike at the heart of Scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” Certainly, our political views fall into this category. Our goal as Christians is to not to make everyone agree or think or act exactly the same. Says Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, “Our primary role as spiritual leaders isn’t making people see eye-to-eye. It’s making sure our eyes are focused on Jesus.”

Every election season, I get emails – most of them forwards – from all sorts of people about candidates. Some of these are friends and acquaintances of mine, some of them are people who, for whatever reason, happened to have my email address and included me in a list of forwards. And clearly, most of these emails are coming from people of faith, because somewhere in the email it says “Pray.” “Pray for our country.” “Pray for wisdom at the polls.” “Pray for justice and truth.” Pray, pray pray. And most of these emails are just awful – full of some of the most hate-filled and fearful rhetoric you can imagine. But what I find fascinating is that most of what is included in these emails is absolute bull. You can go to snopes.com and other places and check out the facts and the claims that are being made about the candidates.

And don’t get me wrong. I want you to be involved in the political process. I want you to have ideas and things you’re passionate about, and to support the candidates who best represent those issues. But, don’t lie about people. Don’t slander people. Don’t bear false witness against people. And don’t forward emails that do the same thing.

There was an email that went around about a year ago from people who claimed to be Christian claiming that our current president was the anti-Christ, because if you took the letters of his name and translated them into numbers, and then worked them into just the right formula, the result was “666.” Now, you can do this with just about anyone’s name if you work just the right formula. For example, my name is easy to do this with as my first, middle, and last names all have 6 letters.

But, to call someone the anti-Christ is about as slanderous as it gets. In Scripture, the only ruler that was ever called the anti-Christ was the Roman Emperor Nero. In the book of Revelation, where John is referring to “the Beast,” most scholars agree that John is making a sort of veiled reference to Emperor Nero. Now, Emperor Nero was a bad guy. He had his own mother and his own children killed so he could hang onto power. He wanted to have a building campaign so he could be honored as the man who rebuilt Rome, so he had the city set on fire and then blamed the fire on the anger of the gods toward Christians. He had Peter and Paul both executed. He would bring in Christians and have them tortured and killed for entertainment at his dinner parties, often tying them to stakes throughout the garden, and having them lit on fire and burned alive after dark. That’s the spirit of the anti-Christ. When we have a president who starts doing these things, ok – go ahead and start calling them the anti-Christ. But until then, we’d better be very careful about what we say about people.

In Romans, St. Paul tells us to have respect for the civil authorities. Paul was talking about the Roman emperors who were just awful! But he says we pray for them and we show respect for them because that’s what Christians do, regardless of your political affiliation. Now listen, right now we happen to have a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, but I’ve seen the same thing from Democrats toward Republicans in other times. It’s not just one party or the other who is guilty of this.

If we believe in the Gospel, one of the things we have to start doing is living out the Gospel, even in the political arena. We have to be driven by the power of God and not the powers of the world. In Ephesians 4, St. Paul tells us to live our lives worthy of the calling we have received. The whole chapter is about how we should live differently as followers of Jesus Christ. The backstabbing, the slander, the lies, the false witness, the fear – these things that define our political process, in other words – may be how politics are handled by the world, but these should not be how they are handled by Christians. Christians are called to live a better way in all areas of our life, including in our politics. At the end of this chapter, St. Paul says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” Today, we might say let no evil email come off your computer or no evil phone call be made. “…but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Grief here is a word that means intense pain or sorrow that we inflict on the heart of God when we say words that cut other people or tear them down. That’s how we’re meant to practice politics in relation to our faith.

In the 12th Chapter of Mark, Jesus was tested. It was the last week of his life. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law have just been dogging Jesus, trying to trip him up and catch him doing something wrong. Have you guys ever been dogged by someone like this? The Pharisees send the Herodians to ask Jesus a question. The Herodians were people of Jewish faith, but they were also loyal to the Herod family, as their name might suggest. So, as Jews, they were supposed to be completely loyal to God, but their name suggests they probably placed their identity in this political affiliation before God.

The question was designed to put Jesus in a no-win situation. They said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Remember, the Jewish homeland was under occupation by the Roman government who was charged burdensome taxes on the people, and this was resented. The people hoped the Messiah would overthrow the Roman government and the taxes would stop, and more and more people believed Jesus was the Messiah, and they were following him and listening to his teachings. So if Jesus says taxes should be paid to Caesar, they hoped the people would turn away from him and his base of power would be eroded. If Jesus said no, the Romans would arrest him and put him to death for encouraging other people not to pay their taxes. It was a no-win situation.

Jesus says, “Give me one of the coins.” So they do, and he looks at the coin and says, “Whose image is on this coin?” On the coin is the image of Emperor Tiberius, so they respond that it is Caesar’s image on the coin. So Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

A lot of ink has been spilled on this teaching, but what I want you to focus on is the use of the word “image.” Jesus asks whose image is on the coin. The word “image” here in the Greek, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, is the same word that is used back in Genesis 1:26 and 1:27. In the story of creation, when God creates humankind, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” “In the image of God, they were created, male and female.” And so here, Jesus is saying there are certain things that belong to the world. There are things that belong to the powers of the world and are stamped with the world’s image – let the world have those things. And so you render those things that belong there. You get involved in the civic arena, you get involved in politics, you serve, you work for the common good.

But while the coin has the image of Caesar, your soul has the image of God. You render to God the things that belong to God. And since God’s image is on your soul, marked indelibly on your very being, you belong to God. Your heart, your soul, your being, your allegiance belongs to the one who made you, whose image you bear. So while we are involved in the civic arena, our heart belongs to God. And for many Christians, it’s hard to tell that this is the case. Many times it seems that their heart really belongs to their nation, or their political party, and God is 2nd or 3rd or perhaps somewhere even lower on the list.

But God says, “I won’t share. I won’t play second string. You’re going to be on this earth for just a short time, but you’re going to be with me for eternity.” We’re going to be on this earth with its earthly powers for just a short time, but we’re going to be in the kingdom of God for eternity, and our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God and not to the kingdoms of the world. Each Sunday and every Sunday belongs to no one save God and the Christ. We don’t give our worship time to institutions and organizations because these shear us away from declaring our primary allegiance to God and God’s kingdom.

This church is here as a foreign embassy, if you will. We are gathered as a foreign embassy of the kingdom of God. We live as citizens of this country with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining, and we seek to be a blessing to others as we live out our faith, but our primary allegiance is to the one who made us, and we remember that as we practice our politics, and we live like it, for this is what Scripture teaches.

Christians have gotten it wrong when we are motivated by a political agenda and seek to use our faith to promote partisan ideals. We get it right when we live as ambassadors of the kingdom of God in the midst of this time and place. The kingdom of God is not captured by a political party, and it is a dangerous moment when a temporal power is confused and equated with higher power. Instead of moving left or right, I invite us all to move deeper – deeper into the ways of the kingdom of God.

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