Sunday, February 13, 2011

All politics is local

Today's sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37.

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“For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.”

This morning I want to talk to you about politics. But before you head for the doors, give me a few moments.
I want to talk about politics as one of the basic foundations of how we form human communities, small and large.
Politics is about relationships and how we function with each other in those relationships. When two or more are gathered together, there you will find politics.
Or as one political sage once said, “All politics is local.”
Politics permeates our families and our friendships. Politics is in our workplace and the classroom, in the larger gatherings of cities and states, and in the larger community writ large by governments and nations, and, yes, in the Church.
No surprise that.

Politics is inescapable. It is in the air we breathe, the language we use, the way we think and behave. Politics is on the wallpaper of our lives; it is the background noise we often don’t hear.
Yet, we need to ask: what values are reflected in our politics? I’m speaking not just about the voting booth, but about the fundamental way we conduct ourselves with each other as communities, and the way we form our relationships and the values those relationships are based upon.

Common to every book in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is a sharp critique of all human politics, and all relationships based on power, avarice and greed, and we get a big dose of it today in our readings.
Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is especially critical of those who are practicing bumper sticker religion that is based on selfish human political categories. Listen to how Paul puts this:
“For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?”
Paul urges his listeners to break out of the mold. We are called to better things:
“For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.”
That is a big clue about how we should order our relationships: Pursue service, not selfishness; patience, not anger; love not fear. Put that in your politics.
From where and what is Paul’s critique coming? Paul had founded a Church in Corinth, a vibrant and culturally diverse seaport in Greece. Other Christian leaders were there, too, and the Christian experiment was quickly devolving into camps formed around charismatic leaders, including Paul and another dynamic leader named Apollos.
Paul challenged his own followers – and by extension those of Apollos – to remember whom they really were following: Jesus, the Risen Christ of Easter, the rabbi of the Sermon on the Mount.
If they could keep Christ front and center, Paul believed that would pull people into a politics based not on the selfish needs of giant egos but on the salvation of the many.
Paul’s prescription is not easy to follow, then or now, and Paul did not pretend that it would be.
I would suggest that it is much easier for us to slip into the familiarity of our politics and not see the values underneath.
We love a good debate, we follow elections like a spectator sport, we handicap candidates like racehorses, and we categorize and demonize people by their party registration and their ideological perspective.
And I am as good at it as anyone else. I’ve spent an entire career immersed at in the epicenters of professional politics as a political journalist, and I know how to talk the talk: neo-cons, progressives, tea partiers, push polls and slate cards.
I know exactly how it works from the inside. I know what the wizards of political Oz are doing behind the curtains.
But we must ask: What values are reflected in our politics – large and small? What are we taking for granted?
Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew brings this to the very personal. If all politics is local, then all politics is personal.
In this continuation of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear today, Jesus pushes us very hard to ask whether our politics – our common relationships – are based on power and manipulation, or love and forgiveness.
He is challenging us to build relationships based on honesty, not power; humility, not arrogance; love, not anger; patience and forgiveness, not spite and grudges.
Jesus starts with individual relationships. Jesus tells us to take a hard look at the politics at your kitchen table.
Are you angry with a neighbor or a spouse or a child? How will you act? What values will you bring to your actions? Love and patience, or anger and manipulation?

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar,” Jesus says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

When we pass the peace this morning, we are called to really pass the peace.
When we falter in finding that peace, as surely you and I will, we are called to pick ourselves up and try again. That’s why we need to pass the peace every week if not every day.

I think it important to take a moment to understand how this fits precisely into Jesus’ lesson about divorce, especially because his harsh-sounding words can be badly misinterpreted by taking them out of context.
In the time of Jesus, men could divorce their wives for no reason. Marriage was primarily a property transaction, and if a man wanted to take another woman, he could dismiss one wife and acquire another, no questions asked.

And when a woman was divorced, she was dumped onto the street. She had no property rights and now she was damaged goods.
She could not go back to her family because to be divorced was shameful. So her only grim alternatives were to be destitute and die dishonorably, or take up a life of prostitution.
Jesus labeled that for what it was: outside God’s values of love and respect. Yet saying that put Jesus squarely at odds with the cultural and political values of his time.
Christianity is not an easy religion to practice or profess. It never has been. People did not go the to the lion’s den professing vanilla values based superficial tranquility. They took the harder road.
We don’t have to go the lion’s den, but we are no less called to stand with courage by professing the values of love and reconciliation especially when we find it hardest.
And we are challenged to bring those values to the long arc spanning our homes to the ballot box. We cannot profess love and courage at home and greed and fear in our common life.
We’ve seen momentous events this past week as Egypt threw off the yoke of a dictator, and is in the midst of transforming itself into a democracy through a mass non-violent revolution the likes of which has never been seen in the Middle East.
The change is breathtaking, and the outcome is still fragile. Yet these events should also prompt us to ask hard questions about the direction and values of our own politics here in our country.
Where is our own politics based on honesty, humility, love and selfless service? Let’s build on that. Where it isn’t, let’s change it. “Cut it off and throw it away.”
Be bold.
That is the test Jesus gives us for all human relationships, all human politics, whether in the home or among nations: Honesty, humility, love and selfless service.
That is our standard, and we are called to nothing less.
“For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.”

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