November 11, 2018
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Some of you may not be aware that the cloth napkins we use for Seekers prepared meals do not wash themselves. The main motive for choosing cloth napkins was to avoid using paper napkins. On the other environmental hand, a minute amount of more water is used to wash the napkins because individual Seekers wash them in regular laundry loads. My point is that Seekers actions have political, practical, and spiritual aspects.
How much does spiritual concern about the stewardship of nature matter for your practical, economic, and political motivations? How much of your spiritual concerns for nature is about deepening prayer practices by escaping for awhile from practical, economic, and political “worldly” concerns? Do we live on the natural Earth, or do we live in our garden world where we weed out invasive species. Caring in the context of environmental concerns is just one kind of caring and each kind of caring has spiritual, practical, economic, and political implications. How much does our Christian faith help us sort out and prioritize such complexity?
We have had multiple sermons over the last year that lift up environmental concerns. We have had multiple sermons over the last year in support of people who have been mistreated by the United Sates at home or abroad. We had one sermon twenty-two months ago that straightforwardly took on a political topic and not much since. The Plato class led by John Morris and Marcia Sprague was a lot about ethics and the proper governance of the polis. That was pretty close to a straight forward political conversation. We referenced Christian faith to challenge the politics of Plato, a good conversation but not a direct challenge to the politics of Donald Trump.
Some Seekers have participated in the Progressive Christian Citizen’s Support Group to support each other in response to the political and spiritual tragedy of electing Donald Trump. Seekers members have also had a lot of side conversations about politics within this building and in other settings. We are comfortable talking about various advocacy activities, have gone to rallies and protests alone and with clumps of Seekers. Why not openly talk more about electoral politics as part of our classes and sermons?
Are we afraid that discussing politics would be divisive for Seekers? Speaking for myself, I would welcome a Trump supporter into our community life and treat such a person with respect. I think most other Seekers would similarly welcome a Trump supporter. Such a welcome addition would probably help me face up more clearly to my inner voices that create enemy pictures of Trump supporters. However, I imagine a Trump supporter might be uncomfortable in our community despite our welcome. Like everyone else who joins our community, such a person would have to work through questions about whether they are comfortable here, whether they are truly welcome. For example, I love praying the wonderful Prayer of Commitment that we pray every Sunday, in part because the prayer has obvious political implications. I wonder about whether a Trump supporter would be comfortable praying the Prayer of Commitment, whether they would be willing to work with the commitments that I still find challenging.
One of the open secrets of Seekers is that we have very few formal boundaries and several strong informal boundaries. We expect people to explore and develop their callings as ministry. We have no one in the role of clergy and that requires members to take on more responsibilities than in traditional churches. We have women in roles of leadership and authority. We affirm members and leaders who are LGBT or Q. Are there informal boundaries that make you uncomfortable in Seekers, even as you are committed to sharing our common life? Are informal political boundaries different in kind from our other informal boundaries?
Many non-progressive religious leaders and organizations have no problem in being explicitly political in response to their faith convictions.
Roman Catholic bishops and televangelist evangelicals openly steer members to vote Republican because of opposition to abortion, same sex marriage, and LGBT civil rights. Black evangelicals have no trouble speaking out on issues of racial discrimination and openly support the Congressional Black Caucus and are appreciated for their support. Some Jewish synagogues are openly supportive of Israel, as are some Christian fundamentalists who believe God will soon take over the world in a violent apocalypse that has to begin in Jerusalem.
Could it be that we in Seekers are reluctant to talk about our spiritual faith having political implications because the Democrat Party has a strong informal boundary against referencing political concerns to religious concerns? I worked as a policy advocate for the United Church of Christ on Capitol Hill for 19 years. I almost always worked in shifting coalitions that commonly included Methodists, Presbyterians, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Network an advocacy organization of Nuns who advocated for the positions of Catholic Social Teachings, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and similar groups. Together we had some political power and got some things done.
What never happened was being openly welcomed by the Democrat Party, never being cited publicly as contributing to Democrat victories. Here’s one memory story. I was part of a coalition group of progressive religious advocates who had an appointment with Senator Ted Kennedy concerning child care. We did our usual good brief job of presenting our concerns. Kennedy appeared to be listening. When we were done, Kennedy did not respond to anything we had said. He immediately asked us about the position of the Catholic Bishops. We told him. He said, “Thanks for coming by,” and walked out.
There are three strong reasons for the cold shoulder from the Democrat Party. The biggest one is that majorities of members of main line Protestant churches vote Republican, including the numerous small town Midwest UCC churches that are usually the most progressive churches in town and still vote Republican. The only Senator who ever asked me to come by for a conversation was Sam Brownback, a very conservative Republican. At that time he was a member of a UCC church,.
The second strong reason is that the Labor wing of the Democrat Party, historically the heart of the Northern Democrat Party, was pretty much uniformly hostile to organized religion when I was growing up, which mostly meant Protestants at that time. Protestant clergy commonly supported owners versus strikers, not least of all because a lot of church buildings were built with money from owner contributions. Billy Graham, by far the dominant voice of main line and Baptist Christians during my growing up years, was initially promoted by the newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst because Graham was preaching about going to heaven rather than going on strike. Labor’s hostility to organized religion is aptly imaged by a song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” written by Joe Hill in 1911 before he was murdered by the Copper Bosses.
Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked about something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (That’s a lie.)
The third reason is that the strongest support for Democrats is among voters who claim no religious activity, second by those who claim occasional religious activity, and decidedly least of all by those who claim to engage in religious activity at least once a week, or more often.
So here we are. I only have enough time for a very brief sermon on the guidance of Christian faith for political action. Jesus didn’t live in a democracy. There was no tradition of non-violent change of political and economic control. Nonetheless, Jesus was faithful to a Jewish tradition, carried by priests and prophets, who competed with the arbitrary authority of kings and Caesars for effective political control emphasizing the rule of faith based law. With this in mind, let’s have a look at two of the lectionary scriptures for today, beginning with the 146th Psalm which was scripture for Jesus.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals who cannot help you. When they die their bodies return to the Earth. When they die their plans perish.
Be happy and get your help from God, the God who helped Jacob. Jacob’s only hope was God.
The God we look to for help made the Earth and the Sky, made the seas and everything in them.
God sustains our faith all the time. God prompts us to seek justice for the oppressed, is the source of our food when we are hungry.
God set prisoners free and opens the eyes of all who are blind. God lifts those who are bent over with life’s cares. God loves all who live for righteousness,
God protects strangers, upholds widows and orphans.
God guides the way of the wicked to ruin. Paraphrase of Psalm 146: 3-9 (referenced to NRSV, 5th edition)
The 146th Psalm is progressive spiritual guidance that has direct implications for current political activity.
Now consider the political and spiritual relevance of the lectionary reading from the twelfth chapter of Mark. Preachers commonly focus on the verses that value the gift to the temple of the widow’s mite as a prompt for giving whole-heartedly to church budgets.
Verses 38-40 have a different focus. They call out the hypocrisy and oppression of Scribes as official judges who sat in the Seat of Judgment in Synagogues, and Scribes who were part of the Sanhedrin Supreme Religious Court in Jerusalem. In opposing the hypocrisy of the Scribes, Jesus is aligning himself with the Pharisaic School of Hillel against the then dominant themes of the rabbinic School of Shammai. At the time of Jesus there was bitter conflict between the two schools, including a trickster murder of some Hillel rabbis who were invited to a conversation with Shammai rabbis. It took courage for Jesus to speak his prophetic word in the Temple. Opposing the Scribes in the temple was the sort of prophetic speech that got Jesus killed.
Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, who want to be greeted with respect in the market places, who claim the best seats in synagogues, who claim places of honor at banquets. They use their judicial authority to take away the houses of widows and then try to cover up their injustice with long prayers. They shall be condemned.
Once again, the meaning of this comment by Jesus is easy to apply to our current circumstances, easy to see who is misusing judicial authority. Conveniently for this sermon, Trump fired Attorney General Sessions to try to shut down the Mueller investigation. Craig Unger, in his recent book, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, makes the case that Trump colluded with Putin to win the presidency. It is a book filled with details I didn’t know. I am not sure if Unger fully makes his case, because I haven’t read most of the book. When we get the Mueller report and see where the trail of indictments and convictions is headed, we will have a more authoritative reference for assessing Trump’s business and political ties to Putin via the Russian mafia in the United States and with the Secret Police organizations in Russia.
Trump wanted to greeted with respect in the Tree of Life of Synagogue. He was accepted with minimal respect for his office. It was left to protesters a few blocks away to be the voice to condemnation. Press coverage completed the condemnation by pointing out that Trump has given aid and comfort to white nationalism that includes anti-Jewish fervor.
We will soon be joining people around the world in two minutes of silence on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day at the symbolic time of 11/11/11.
I didn’t learn much growing up about the armistice that ended the full-scale warfare in France. I’m glad the fighting stopped and am happy to observe the silence. However my Christian faith led me to want to take a closer look at the historical armistice.
The United States was slow to join Britain and France in battling Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. We started by sending food and military supplies. After two and a half years, in April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and Austro-Hungary.
The war with Austro-Hungary was mostly over before US troops arrived. The war with Germany was fought almost entirely in France. The Armistice was Germany’s surrender to France.
The Armistice was signed at 5:00 a.m. to go into effect at 11:00 a.m. In those 6 hours, hungry for revenge, Allied attacks on German troops provided one of the most violent days of the war. At 10:30 a.m., half an hour before Germans were to retreat from the ground they were holding, the 92nd Division of the US Army attacked a position defended by machine gun nests and chlorine gas. The 92nd Division was made up of African-American soldiers commanded by white officers who were reported as being contemptuous of their troops. I’m glad the full scale fighting stopped. My prayer time in a few minutes will be about more than patriotic self-congratulations.
I intend to help with washing our cloth napkins. I am not part of the Democrat tribe even though I usually vote for Democrats. I am part of a Christian community that I believe has the heart for progressive political change even if we sometimes have trouble speaking out about our political choices and activities. I will continue to pray our Prayer of Commitment with sincerity.