Jesus Before Politics
The following is a sermon by the Episcopal Bishop for the diocese of Spokane, Gretchen Rehberg. It put to words what I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve seen so many followers of Jesus place their politics before the Gospel. While we may disagree about specific solutions, we must all agree on and focus on the work that Christ so clearly asked us to do.
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name…
Paul writing to the church in Thessalonica says that he gives thanks to God for their work of faith, their labor of love and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Work of faith, labor of love, steadfastness of hope.
What has been that work of faith and labor of love and steadfast of hope? -It is the witness to the way of Jesus, the life of loving God and loving neighbor and offering that way of love to the world.
Our world desperately needs this way of love, this way of Jesus. Our world today is a place of division, discord, anger, fear, doubt, and despair. Our world today is a place with every belief and no belief. It is a place where the disparity between rich and poor is increasing, where people are losing trust in governments, where people believe that power is taken by force. We live in a hurting world. A world which desperately needs to hear the message of Jesus, the message of love.
We are not the only, or the first followers of Jesus to live in such a world! The disciples themselves, Jesus himself lived in such a world. Sadly, I think in fact we would be hard pressed to find long stretches of time throughout when this was not the case.
Perhaps that is why Paul uses words such as “work” and “labor” and “steadfastness.” The life of a follower of Jesus was never promised to be easy or without strife. Jesus walked all the way to the cross and calls out to each one of us to pick up our own cross. It may seem the Church in the more recent past has had an easier time but that does not mean that we should expect or even hope for an easier time. Well, we might hope for it, but I doubt I will see it!
In the gospel Jesus is confronted by folks who are trying to trap him into saying something which will get him in trouble with the government of the day. They ask about paying taxes. Jesus of course responds with the great lesson “give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” I have actually heard this as a rational for the separation of church and state. Personally, I cannot imagine that Jesus, or any of his disciples, would have had any such idea. Not to say that I think today that separation of church and state is wrong, simply that as followers of Jesus we cannot separate, bifurcate, shut off, one side of our life from another. We follow Jesus, we do not follow Caesar. When the first followers of Jesus said, “Jesus is Lord” they were saying very clearly, very publicly, “Caesar is not!” The earliest followers of Jesus would go to their death rather than offer incense to the Emperor, rather than “give to Caesar” what the world of their day said was due to Caesar.
As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement (an expression our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry likes to use to describe us) we have never taken such a hard line about our government. Indeed one of the hallmarks of the Episcopal branch is a strong sense that our life in Jesus calls us to act in the public, the political, sphere. That is a good thing. I would argue a necessary way of witness, as long as we understand that we cannot follow both God and Caesar! In every place, in every way, we are to witness to Jesus. We cannot practice the ways of discord and division during the week and say that we are following the way of Love on Sunday. Our work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of faith is an every day, every hour, every minute way of life.
And oh how the world needs us to live this life! How our towns, our cities, our rural areas, our country, needs us to live this life! The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement offers this hurting world a way of being, a way of living, a way of worship which can bring healing and wholeness to the brokenness we see. We do not, we have not, required that everyone who comes to worship agree on everything. We do not sign a statement of doctrinal truths, we do not have purity codes or rules about how to keep holidays. Instead we offer a baptismal covenant which is grounded in worship and learning and lived out in a life which offers respect, justice, peace, humility and transformation. Nobody ever lives up to such a life of course, and so the covenant itself reminds us that we will fail, and offers the way of forgiveness and restoration.
Just imagine what could happen in our communities if everyone respected the dignity of every other person. Just imagine what could happen in our communities if everyone worked for justice and peace, if we all looked for and served the image of Christ in each person. The world needs our witness, it needs our labor of love!
I am convinced that one of the strengths our beloved Episcopal Church brings is that we have not given up on the public sphere, we do believe in working in the world, in being part of the solution to the challenges that face us. A weakness might be our hesitation to be a bit more vocal about our faith. We can be timid out of a sense that we do not want to insult or offend anyone. We can hide our light under a bushel simply because we are trying to be polite. Now I don’t want us to be impolite, or to insult or offend, but I want us to build on our strength of conviction that we can make a difference and be willing to say why we are doing this work, why we love God and love our neighbor and say that love is not simply kind words but actions.
The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement needs to get a bit more public in our work and labor, a bit more outspoken in what is our steadfastness of hope, a bit more willing to stand up and say, “We are followers of Jesus!”
Jesus is Lord, which means that no political party, not way of government, no king, no Caesar, no flag or standard or anything else in this world takes priority over Jesus. We can vigorously and passionately as citizens of country debate the best way of solving specific problems we face, we can come up with different approaches get to our end point. As followers of Jesus we know that while we might not have the best answers on how to feeding the hungry, Jesus told us to feed my sheep. We might disagree on the best approach to tackle the issue, but Jesus told us to house the homeless, we might not know the best way of getting everyone good health care but Jesus told us to heal the sick.
Is it easy? No. This work of faith, this labor of love, this steadfastness of hope, this witness to the way of Jesus probably will lead us into hardship and conflict with the world around us. It led Peter and James and John to the death of martyrs. But it is the only work, the only labor, the only hope that can truly change this world.
I said it before, but I think it worth repeating. As I look at the world today I know that we desperately need the good news of Jesus. I deeply believe that this world needs us, it needs us to love God and love our neighbor in word and action. It needs us to be a creative and compelling witness to Jesus because it is only when we follow Jesus that we see hope. I cannot do this on my own. You cannot do it on your own. We need each other, we need the whole Body of Christ. We need to follow Jesus together.
So my brothers and sisters let us do just that. We are loved, we are called, let us know that love, hear that call, join together, and follow Jesus.