Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Trigger warning: I mention the existence of partisan politics in my sermon this morning. However, you will not be able to analyze the following text in such a way as to figure out where I am situated vis-á-vis American political parties. If you read between the lines, you may be able to figure out how I feel about another country’s politics, but it will get you no closer to being able to translate that into our own political system, so try not to speculate, because I really think it’s neither here nor there.

I think it is manifestly unwise to engage in what might be perceived as party politics in the pulpit. Note that I use the term “party politics”, rather than simply “politics”, because it is almost impossible to always avoid saying anything which might suggest some government policies might be more in keeping with the Gospel than others. Even then, though, I try to be circumspect, because I’ve heard enough sermons that technically don’t say something like “the Democrats are right” or “the Republicans are right”, but one need but scratch the surface to see that this is really the preacher’s point. When Paul said that he strove to be all things to all people he was speaking primarily with regard to Jews and Gentiles in the early church, but I think he set a good standard for today’s church, which should proclaim the Gospel in ways that all can hear, regardless of voting preference and party affiliation.

I was thinking about all this for a couple of reasons. For one, Independence Day, which we just observed, always reminds me that my Christian Responsibility and my civic duty are not coterminous, but the former certainly informs the latter, since (at least for me) my Christian commitment must inform every aspect of my life. Thank God that we do not have an established church and religious tests in this country. (I know that’s strange coming from an Anglican, since historically our church, not so much in America, but certainly in England, has been among the most brazen Church-State “integralists” in this regard!) However, one cannot and should not have two competing worldviews in one’s head to deploy in different spheres of life, as if one could be a Christian on a Sunday morning and a secular humanist on election day. I think religious tolerance and a hesitancy to impose uniquely Christian expectations can themselves be Christian values.

I was also thinking about this because–perhaps incongruously but I hope not unpatriotically–I stayed up later than I usually do on Independence Day night following the results of the UK parliamentary elections. For twenty years and more, since I lived in Britain, I’ve particularly followed the ups-and-downs of the Liberal Democratic party, whose very name may be confusing to Americans, since (though this is an oversimplification) they may be seen as the centrist party ideologically between the Tories and Labour. The Lib-Dems had a big night, going from 11 to 71 seats; it doesn’t appear (at least from the publications I read) as if our country’s mainstream press has picked up on this rather big story and its implications for British politics going forward.

Anyway it reminded me of a period during which this party was in a crisis, having faced electoral implosion in 2015, after a noble if politically misjudged decision to join the Conservatives in forming a coalition government. They named a new party leader, Tim Farron, who only lasted two years in that post, and his decision to resign was, to me at least, devastatingly sad. He explained that he could not see how he could remain both a political party leader and a committed, faithful Christian. How heartbreaking, especially considering that this was in a country which, unlike our own, is constitutionally Christian with an established church. We should not, I repeat, have religious tests to hold office in this country, but that is not to say that we cannot appreciate or desire faithful men and women who bring core Christian values–mercy and justice and hope and love–to bear on how they lead and govern.

I bring all this up, because both our Old Testament and our Gospel this morning point to the difficulties and dangers inherent in bringing God’s Word to bear on the body politic. Ezekiel is warned that his own people are a rebellious house, that the leadership which remained in Israel after the rise of the Babylonians may not accept his prophetic word, and that national disaster could follow, which indeed it did. Likewise, Jesus said that a prophet is not without honor accept among his own people, no doubt because that prophet has a word which challenges his people–how they live and move and have their being in a social and, dare I say, sometimes political sense.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that all politicians or preachers can or even should be prophets. When a preacher claims as much for himself or herself, it strikes me more often than not that they are engaging in party politics in a narrow sense rather than in encouraging and enabling those values which are central to the Kingdom of God. I’ve heard preachers do just this from both the right and the left in sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. I have two basic rules of thumb in this regard. 1) If someone claims to be undertaking the prophetic vocation, he or she is probably not. 2) More controversially, prophets don’t have pensions, so if one has dedicated one’s whole ministry to such action, it may be wise to do so as something other than a full-time parish priest. That’s just my opinion, and there are notable exceptions–Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero come to mind–but note well, they lost more than their pensions as a result.

We are not all called to the prophetic task in the proper sense, I think (though some would disagree), because that vocation in its fullest expression is one which I believe God gives the “prophet proper” in a way which he or she cannot deny and cannot mistake for something else–whether than something else be a vague feeling or a political bias. Being a prophet is not, as the youngsters these days say, a “vibe.” I don’t doubt that God can still appoint men and women to this task, but as I already suggested, this often ends in literal martyrdom, not just losing an election or getting some parishioners mad at you for “preaching politics from the pulpit.”

However, we can and should all bring our Christian values to bear on all aspects of our lives–how we live and support each other in our families, how we do our jobs, what we choose to do with our leisure time, how we use the wealth we have beyond that which we need to live in modest comfort and security, and (yes) even how we interact with our communities and country with regard to public policy. We should interrogate where our values come from–do they come from the Gospel or from somewhere else. And, here is perhaps the most political thing I will say, though I don’t think it’s controversial and you may be diasppointed if you wanted me to get controversial, so sorry– There is not a single political party’s platform or manifesto, in this country or any other, that is in 100% agreement with the values of the Gospel.

There is a song I love, written by Woody Guthrie, but which he never set to music or recorded. I first heard it in a recording from British singer Billy Bragg accompanied by the American rock band Wilco. The first verse goes like this:

Let’s have Christ for President
Let us have him for our King
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That they call the Nazarene

Would that this were an option, but I regret to inform you, that as strongly as you might feel about any candidate or party, Jesus himself is not on any ballot this election cycle. You picks your person and you takes your chances. The important thing is that we do so in a spirit of prayerful discernment and of charity to your neighbor, by whom I mean, among others, the person in this church who will have chosen differently from you, because I guarantee that person exists. And thank God that we can come together in this place, if nowhere else in our polarized society, to worship the only man who can govern our lives and hearts and the entire universe, whose principalities and powers are now in some sense under his governance and which will on the last day be conformed entire and whole and perfect under the reign of the King of Peace.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.