Monday, November 3, 2014

WHAT WOULD ISAIAH SAY? (A Preelection Sermon)

[This is a shortened and slightly modified version of the sermon I preached yesterday to the Pennswood Village Interdenominational Congregation, in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where I am in my thirteenth year as Minister of Worship.].

From a Bible card published by
the Providence Lithograph Co.
(c. 1904)
        If Isaiah were alive today, I doubt that he would win the most popular preacher award. He would be in too much hot water with those who think the church should keep out of politics.
        Isaiah was not too popular in his day either, for the very same reason. I can imagine the reaction when he attacked King Hezekiah’s foreign policy and denounced the politicians who were advocating an alliance with Egypt. One of the leaders was a foreigner named Shebna, who had risen to a position of power and influence in the court. Isaiah rebuked him publicly for his arrogance and presumptuousness in building an ostentatious tomb for himself.
        This, incidentally, is the only time in the Book of Isaiah that we find the prophet condemning an individual by name, and I’m sure Shebna’s supporters were infuriated by such blatantly partisan politics. Other prophets, like Amos and Jeremiah, did the same thing on occasion, but most of the time the prophets were dealing with issues and policies and general conditions. That was meddlesome enough, and they often paid a severe price for it.
        The setting has changed since Isaiah’s day, of course, but the issue of politics and religion has not. With a mid-term election about to take place, this is a good time to consider again the role of the church in the political process. Those who take the attitude that the twain shall never meet often quote the familiar words of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). This is one of the most misunderstood and misused sayings in the entire New Testament. Jesus could not possibly have meant that God’s authority applies only to the church and not to the state. That would contradict everything he taught about God, who is Lord of all life, and about the kingdom of God, which term refers to God’s all encompassing reign and God’s universal realm. To interpret Jesus’ words to mean that there is a dimension of life in which the power of the state is above that of God is not only wrong but blasphemous!
        Nor should this saying be used to defend the notion that Christians should support any government, no matter how unjust, or corrupt, or evil. On the contrary, a Christian’s first allegiance is to God, whose commandments must always take precedence over the edicts of earthly rulers. The temptation has always been not to give God the things that are Caesar’s but to give Caesar the things that are God’s. Caesar too often gets the lion’s share and God the left-overs.
        The Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus by asking him whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar. If he said Yes, he would infuriate the Jews, who viewed Roman taxation as an offense to God. But if he said No, his enemies would immediately accuse him of treason against Rome, even though they themselves were opposed to taxes. Does that sound familiar?
        It was a clever trap, but Jesus didn’t fall for it. He was aware of their hypocrisy, and he knew they were putting him to the test. So he asked for a coin and made them tell him whose likeness and inscription were on it. Caesar’s image and title on the coin were the recognized symbol of Rome’s rule and Caesar’s right to collect taxes. So Jesus had forced them to answer their own question.
        Then he silenced them with his powerful charge: Give Caesar his due, therefore, but render to God the worship and obedience which belong to God alone. Thus Jesus acknowledged the legitimacy of civil government within the context of the higher authority of God. In so doing he was taking a stand on a highly controversial political issue, so that his own example serves to contradict those who deny the church’s right to address itself to political issues!
        This text alone would be sufficient to establish the right, indeed the responsibility, of Jesus’ followers to engage in politics, beginning with their responsibility to vote.  In a democracy it is the right and the responsibility of every citizen to vote. And because it is the duty of a Christian to be a good citizen, it is the duty of Christians to vote.
        Some may think that statement is self-evident, but it is not. There are Christians who because of their commitment to the separation of church and state believe that Christians should not vote. And there are people who because of their commitment to a particular losing candidate in the primaries have declared they would not vote in the general election, as a form of protest. And there are people who are too lazy to vote, or who are not interested enough to vote, or who think the midterm elections are not important enough to vote.
        More reprehensibly, there are people who want to vote but will not be able to because of the restrictive voting laws in their states. So do not assume everyone knows the importance of voting or will be able to vote.
        To those people who could but don’t vote it needs to be said that not to vote is to shirk one’s responsibility to come to a decision and to voice one’s opinion in the democratic manner. Not to vote is to leave this responsibility to others. People should never express their disapproval, or anger, or resentment by boycotting the polls. That is irresponsible. It is our Christian duty as well as our civic responsibility to be interested, informed, and involved in the political process. So vote as you please, but vote, please.
        You would have expected me to say that, and Isaiah would certainly agree, if he were living in our times, once he had been introduced to democracy. He would expect us to consider all the issues and to base our decisions on a careful appraisal of the party platforms and the history of their performance, as well as the qualifications of the individual candidates. He would want us as people of faith to express our views without bitterness or rancor, and to be tolerant of those who happen to be on the opposite side of the political fence.
        In that connection, I’m pretty sure Isaiah would say that with regard to presidential elections, the successful candidate, whoever it is, needs and deserves our support and our prayers. All Americans should want their president to succeed for the good of our country and its role in the world. That, unfortunately, has not been the case with our current president, and I have no doubt that Isaiah would have plenty to say about that.
        If such comments are to be expected from a preacher, why are so many people always sounding off about the church’s involvement in politics? The church is people, and if its members are involved in politics, the church is involved. When they vote, they are part of the political process. When they serve as a party workers, or in public office at any level, or on some civic task force or commission, they are engaged in politics. When they take part in a political discussion, or attend a political rally, or sign a petition, or support a candidate financially, or display a sign or a bumper sticker, they are involved and the church is involved in partisan politics.
        Nobody can deny a person’s right to do that sort of thing. So what’s all the fuss about? Obviously the problem is not a church member’s right to engage in partisan politics. The problem is rather the church’s right to address itself to political issues as a corporate entity. Some churches have traditionally claimed the right to influence their members in political elections, even to the extent of urging support of a particular candidate from the pulpit.
        A Pew Research Poll released in September indicated that a growing number of Americans believe churches should express views on political questions of the day. There are more people who feel that way than there those who think churches should stay out of politics! What is even more surprising is that a growing minority of Americans think it would be good thing for churches to endorse particular political candidates!
        At a time when the church has been relegated to the sidelines as an opinion leader with regard to non-religious issues, I see those new survey results as a positive sign. Although I have my own political opinions, I have studiously avoided expressing my purely partisan views from the pulpit. But just as Isaiah did in the case of Shebna, I have never hesitated to address the moral or spiritual implications of any political issue, from Richard Nixon’s lying about Watergate, to Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions, to the Bush administration’s deceptive justification for their preemptive invasion of Iraq, an action I strongly opposed, even before it was taken.
        If Isaiah were alive today he would say that it is my right as a preacher, indeed my responsibility, to present a biblical, theological perspective on the moral, ethical, and spiritual issues of the day in whatever dimension of life I can discern them, including politics. He would probably say especially politics, for politicians draft the laws that define public morality, determine our nation’s priorities, delineate policies to guide our commercial, social, and public life, and enact programs to meet the needs of people and organizations. A preacher can bring the gospel to bear upon the issues, while leaving the technical aspects to the experts. In so doing we preachers face the constant challenge of helping our congregations to distinguish between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s, and we need their prayers to help us do that faithfully.
        Some political questions are largely programmatic in nature and should be answered on purely pragmatic grounds. Other questions have definite ethical and moral implications which demand the most sensitive theological insight and moral integrity. The issue, therefore, is not whether the church should keep out of politics, but whether the church can be faithful to its calling to speak for God to the issues of our time. After being at it for nearly sixty years I would say that most people feel it’s okay for their preacher to speak out on social or political issues —as long as they agree with him or her! When they don’t agree, it’s meddling!
        It is one thing for a minister to take a stand on an issue. It’s another thing for an entire church, or a denomination, or a council of churches to do so. But if the church of Jesus Christ is going to have any impact on the political, social, and economic structures of our society, it is going to have to bring its corporate witness to bear upon the issues that affect our common life. How should a church do this?
        Of one thing I am sure. You don’t decide moral issues by polling your constituents. Isaiah didn’t study the Gallup Polls before taking his stand. What he stood for was hardly ever the popular point of view. I’m equally sure, however, that he kept himself well informed. He wasn’t speaking out of ignorance. He knew what was going on, as his prophecies clearly indicate. Preachers would do well to follow his example, therefore, if they hope to speak with the same prophetic authority. That requires our best biblical/theological insight and spiritual sensitivity, as well as our practical knowledge of the issues themselves. It calls for responsible dialogue among those who can discern and articulate the underlying values and principles and the ethical implications of particular political issues and those whose expertise is needed to solve the problems that are raised.
        When a denomination or a particular church addresses a controversial issue, it is bound to offend some people, whose partisan views often cloud their moral judgments. Politics has been called the art of compromise, but the line between compromise and corruption is sometimes very thin.
On major issues I find myself having to compromise almost every time I vote. The issues are seldom defined exactly as I would want them to be. There have always been distinctions between the political philosophies of the two major parties. Those distinctions are sharper than ever these days, it seems to me, and because of that it makes it easier for a truly objective person, that is a person who is able to put principle above party loyalty, to make a decision.
        Every major national issue —immigration. gun control, campaign finance reform, the Keystone pipeline, fracking, Ebola, ISIS, abortion, the national infrastructure, climate change, voters’ rights, women’s rights, same sex marriage, unemployment, education, taxes, whatever— is at heart a theological issue. Most of them are stewardship issues. Nobody’s perfect, but it behooves us as Christians, before we go into the polling booth, to ask ourselves which party and which candidates better reflect the teachings of Christ.
        Many of us have been disturbed by the degree of negativity preceding this mid-term election. We need to listen carefully to the candidates’ criticisms of each other in order to assess the validity of their claims. I strongly object when a candidate grossly misrepresents his or her opponent’s point of view. It’s the old “straw man” ploy: deliberately misstate your opponents position and then attack what your opponent never said. Politicians —and theologians— are always doing that to one another.
        One thing is sure: God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah and the other prophets made that abundantly clear! We need to keep that in mind, when we vote. Biblical truth should guide a Christian’s thinking in any and every election. The prophets and Jesus remind us that God is on the side of those who are concerned about the future of this planet and those who live on it, that God is on the side of the peace makers and those who are faithful stewards of God’s earth and of all life.
There are, to be sure, men and women of integrity on both sides of the political aisle. They may agree on some things and disagree on others, and in sorting it all out, we voters, we Christian voters, may well disagree in our assessments. But surely Isaiah and Jesus would expect all of us to vote not for our economic self-interest, but for the candidates we think will move our society towards greater justice and peace, more responsible stewardship of our resources and power, more concern for the poor and the oppressed, and for those who are the victims of hunger, and disease, and homelessness, and any kind of abuse or neglect.
        We need to pray humbly and earnestly, with an open mind and heart, before we vote, that the Holy Spirit will enable us to choose those whose ideas best reflect what it means to be, and whose character and style of leadership can help us to be, what we claim to be, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

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