Politics in the Pulpit

A sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on  September 9, 2012.

I promised three weeks ago to try to say nothing more about politics this fall – and I kept that commitment for three weeks!  But now that the Conventions are over and the elections, I’m sure, have your undivided attention it seems to me it might be possible to say just another word or two about politics: who to vote for – that kind of thing.

I have two excuses. First, I think we forget how political the Bible is.  A very large part of the Old Testament is history, political history. It’s the story of Israel and its kings and the way they used their power. It talks about social conditions, about wealth and poverty. It talks about justice, and the conflict between God’s justice and human injustice.

The Bible doesn’t know anything about separation of church and state. It only knows about one world which God made all of and for which God has a purpose. The Bible also knows that God’s purpose may sometimes come in conflict with human politics but it doesn’t see that as an excuse for God’s people to remain silent or uninvolved or to say “That’s not my business.”

At the very least, it gives us standards by which to guide our own participation in the political process. A Christian politician or a Christian citizen has no excuse for checking his or her faith at the door of the church. If you have to consider your faith and not just your own self-interest – If you have to consider your faith as well as your donors, your corporate sponsors – that’s bound to make your job harder.  As voters, we need to think more broadly than just who offers the biggest tax breaks. And as a preacher I need to also.  If the Bible is about politics, I can’t just ignore it and preach about something else.

And second, I think we’ve begun to get more comfortable in this country with the interrelationship between faith and politics. Maybe “comfortable” isn’t the right word but I think we are more aware of the relationship, not surprised to find that it exists. Back in the ’60s, liberals became deeply involved in politics, especially the civil rights movement, and clergy and church leaders played a vital role and conservatives were complaining about separation of church and state. But then in the ’80s the conservatives got involved in issues – and still are – ranging from school choice to right to life – and now it’s the liberals who fuss about church and state.

So both sides have had a fling, and maybe both therefore have begun to see that you really can’t be a Christian and not care about God’s world – all of it – and that includes the political process. Whatever wall the constitution establishes between church and state is there to protect the church from the state not the state from the church.

It’s worth noticing also that we Episcopalians come from a tradition that still has an established church in England and it’s odd how Americans love to watch the English pomp and ceremony of kings and queens and bishops and all that as long as it’s safely across the pond. But the Church of England, our Mother Church, assumes not just the right but the obligation to take responsibility for society and tell the state its duty.

And then, of course, we had a reading this morning from the Old Testament, from the prophet Isaiah, directly related to this subject. And that brings it all together in a way that I think makes it helpful to look at the subject more carefully.

So let me ask you to think about what Isaiah is saying to us, not just to his world, but ours also.  We need to go back almost 3000 years to a time when Israel was – well, as it still is – a tiny political entity struggling to survive in the clash of big powers around it. Syria to the north, Persia to the east, Egypt to the south were the big players.  Some things never change.  And the Kings of Israel and Judah tried to find ways to use the big powers to their own advantage. We don’t know a lot about Isaiah, but he seems to have been on close terms with the king – perhaps even a member of the royal court. And we can read of confrontations between Isaiah and the king, in which Isaiah was recommending a policy of non-involvement, to stay clear of power politics and trust God rather than armies.  “In returning and rest you will be saved,” he said; “in quietness and confidence will be our strength.”

Thise are familiar words, but they were spoken first as a policy for a particular nation at a particular moment, not necessarily a general principle for all time. We’re not in the same situation today at all.  As Americans, we are more in the position of ancient Egypt or Babylon, and it’s people like the various modern middle eastern states who are in the position that Israel was in then, small nations trying to play off the major powers to their own advantage. Isaiah might still want to say to Israel, “Stay out of the way, don’t try to get America on your side against Iran but stay out of it, let them fight it out.”  But Isaiah’s message to us might be very different. Would he tell us also to retreat from the conflict, keep a low profile and hope for the best, or would he see that we have no choice but to use our power to attempt to keep the peace?

It comes around to a question of how you read the Bible.  Fundamentalists would read it as saying the same thing then as now, advice to Israel then and advice to Israel now.  Others would say you need to ask why Isaiah said what he did and whether that would be different now when the situation is different.  I think we need to look very carefully at what Isaiah has to say in today’s first reading and why he says it. The first part has to do, as I said, with a particular moment in world history and not much to do with us at least in those terms. But what we often do as a result is to forget the big picture, the political context, and read it as personal advice.  Isaiah said, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, Be strong; fear not.  Behold, your God . . . will come and save you.” It’s a lot like the verse I quoted earlier:  “In returning and rest you will be saved; in quietness and confidence will be our strength.”  I would bet that most people today take those verses and others like them as personal advice: “Trust God, be confident, never fear.” At one level that’s fine; that’s perfectly valid. Sometimes we need that kind of advice.  Isaiah might have said just that to us. But he didn’t.  He was talking to his king and his people at a critical moment.

What Isaiah knew was that God is the ultimate strength of nations and individuals. God is the ultimate strength of nations: not Persia, not Egypt, not an anti-missile shield, not nuclear weapons, not any amount of military spending.  None of that can save us as a state, a people. That was certainly his first point and it still applies. Political power alone can never save us. But also, at a personal level, there’s a parallel message: we cannot be saved by investments, or insurance policies, or medicine or psychotherapy. Ultimately God alone can save us – nations and individuals alike – only God can save us from the fears and weakness of human life. So we need to know God, to build and cultivate that relationship in worship and prayer and Bible study and Christian service to find the strength we need. And pray that those who lead us will do the same.
So, the particular situation the prophet spoke to is past and gone, but the basic principles remain valid and maybe even more widely than Isaiah realized: valid personally as well as nationally.  We need to read Isaiah in somewhat the same way that we will still read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  When the speeches of this year’s campaign are mercifully forgotten we will sgtill read that speech because it defines who we are as a people in memorable terms and it remains valid.  The Civil War is long over but the basic principles Lincoln spoke of are principles we need to remember again and again to be reminded of our identity. We’re no longer fighting a Civil War but the principle stated in our Declaration of Independence and restated in the Gettysburg Address remains true: that all people are created equal and that governments are created to secure those rights.

But don’t stop there.  Yes, there are basic principles to remember but Isaiah also has something much, much greater in mind.  Listen to what comes next: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…”  Suddenly we’re looking far beyond individuals and nations and politics.  Suddenly Isaiah lifts our eyes to give us a vision of a whole world transformed, a world in which the deaf can hear and the blind can see and the lame can leap yes, but much more than even that: the desert will bloom with new life: streams will run in the dessert, water will flood the wilderness.

Isaiah gets kind of carried away but the prophets are like that.  They know who God is – the Creator of heaven and earth – and that has consequences. Would you imagine that a God who created black holes and spiral nebulae can’t make crops grow in the Negev?  Of course he can. And than if we look at America we find a country obsessed with building prisons rather than schools, building roads in Afghanistan while our own roads and bridges fall apart, in which the gulf between rich and poor grows steadily greater, in which, for my money, neither party or candidate has been able to look up and show us a vision. If you look at the international situation and find vast areas where children starve and education and health care are simply not available or if you look at this so-called “fragile earth our island home” and find even here in Connecticut rivers so polluted you can’t eat the fish in them and if you find no one willing to act, politicians so indebted to polluters that they can’t do what needs to be done, you can get discouraged and drop out as millions of Americans do. Or you can listen to Isaiah: “Say to those of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not . . . your God will come . . .”

You and I also know what Isaiah knew: that it is God’s world not ours and God has a vision for it far beyond any we have dared dream of. And we know that God can and will accomplish that purpose with us or without us. God is able to make streams in the desert, and streams here we can fish in and God can create harmonious societies and God can bend nations to the way of peace. Isaiah talks about a Jerusalem in which children play in the streets – without fear of cars or polluted air or guns.  Can you believe that, or even imagine it? Not today, not with the narrow minded and fearful leaders currently in place or running for office here or in Israel or Palestine or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran. Not a nickel’s worth of vision among them. So that’s discouraging, but remember the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah lived in a tiny state being bounced around like a ping pong ball in a world indifferent to his dreams and living with leaders as myopic as any of ours today. Their power could change nothing – but God could.  Isaiah knew what was possible with God.

We live in a powerful state with technological and scientific skills even Isaiah never dreamed of. What could God do with us if we looked up and trusted the vision? So where are the prophets now? Why do our candidates have so little vision? Why do we let them get away with such narrow and selfish agendas?  Isn’t it time we too became prophets and dared to dream and encourage others to dream of what might be, yes, and work and pray and vote for it knowing that God can accomplish even more than we have yet dared to imagine.

1 Comment

PeterSeptember 12th, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Hard to find time to read… but well worth it. Interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks for posting! Well don.

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