Sermon: “(Your) Faith and Politics” (10/19/14)

            Anybody tired of campaign ads yet?  Every year when the ads begin, I’m hopeful.  The first ads name the issues and explain how candidates plan to address them.  Then somebody’s poll numbers slip and–they’ll tell an interviewer– “I didn’t want to do it, but I had to let my constituents know that my opponent is lying.”  Then the opponent defends him or herself by slinging some mud of their own.  By Election Day, you’re happy to vote, not out of civic pride but because now—at last!–the ads will end (…unless there’s a run-off.  Please!  No run-offs!).

The hardest part of political campaigns for me are the debates.  Political debates make me nervous.  And sad.  Most candidates seem much less interested in discussing the issues than in setting traps for their opponents.

That’s what happens in today’s Gospel lesson.  “Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words,” Matthew tells us.  Why were the Pharisees setting word traps? This encounter comes late in Matthew’s Gospel.  By now, it’s clear to everyone that Jesus is challenging the religious authorities to rethink what they do.  Victims of the heavy-handed policies of those religious authorities, people are flocking to Jesus and away from the Pharisees.  Yes. The Pharisees’ poll numbers are slipping.  🙂

So, “they send their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod” (the Governor of the region) to ask:  “Teacher,” (say people who have made it clear they have nothing to learn from Jesus), “we know that you are genuine (glad somebody is) and that you teach God’s way as it really is (unlike we teach it).  We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions (like we are) because you don’t show favoritism (at least you haven’t shown it to us).  So tell us what you think:  Does the (religious) Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Here’s the issue.  The Jewish people had little power in the Roman Empire.  Herod was Jewish, but he was a puppet of the Roman government.  Back in Israel’s heyday, the Jews had governed themselves, with God as their “emperor.”  Now that they had a real emperor and a mean-hearted Governor, the issue of whether or not to participate in a government that abused its power–especially in its tax laws–was a hot one.

So, the Pharisees ask Jesus this question–in front of a group of Jewish people and emissaries of the Roman government—as a test.  If he says, Yes, the Law says it’s okay to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Romans will be happy, but he will lose the support of the rank-and-file Jewish people.  On the other hand, if Jesus says, “No.  It is not lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar,” then he’ll be arrested on the spot and thrown in jail.  If that happens, the people will get back in line and the Pharisees’ poll numbers will rise again….which is the whole point, right?

But Jesus is on to them.  “Knowing their evil motives, he replies:  ‘Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used to pay the tax.”  They bring him a coin.  ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ he asks.  ‘Caesar’s,’ they reply.  Then he says, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’”

As a means of entrapment, the Pharisees’ question is brilliant, but Jesus’ response is even more brilliant.  It’s brilliant because he doesn’t fall into the Pharisees’ trap.  He knows they’re trying to set him up.  He knows they’re trying to get him imprisoned by the Romans or disenfranchised by the Jewish people–answering the question directly would have landed him in either of those places.

Instead of answering directly, though, Jesus turns the question back on the Pharisees– “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Decide for yourselves, he says.  I don’t have time for these petty power games.  The work of the kin-dom is too important.  Matthew tells us that “When the Pharisees heard Jesus’ response, they were astonished–probably that their ploy hadn’t worked– and they departed.”  Probably with their tails tucked between their legs.

Do you like this Jesus?  I sure do.  The Savior who sticks it to the manipulative, heavy-handed religious authorities?  Oh, you bet I like this Jesus!

…until I really listen to what he’s saying.  “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  You decide the relationship between your faith and your civic life, Jesus says.  Oh, man!  Decide for myself? You mean Jesus isn’t going to tell me how to vote in a couple of weeks?  Are you telling me Jesus isn’t a registered voter?

Actually, I’m not saying that. If Jesus lived in the here and now, he probably would be a registered voter….but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t tell us how he was planning to vote. Because, what would happen if he did? He’s Jesus, right? We’d all just vote the way he voted without giving it another thought….

….which is exactly what Jesus is afraid of. He’s afraid of people of faith not giving any thought to the relationship between what we believe and how we live. How would Jesus vote? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that people of faith think for ourselves about how our faith informs what we say and do outside these four walls.

We say we believe God’s love is for everyone, that—as followers of Jesus—we are called to act others into well-being. Do we keep that call in mind when we read the candidates’ stances on issues? When we step up to the voting machine to register our choices, do we bring the “least of these” with us and consider how our vote will affect them? In our own mission statement here at Pilgrimage we commit ourselves to “bringing hope, comfort, and friendship to all”….Does the way we vote help us live out that commitment?

We say that “God is still speaking…” Jesus’ grumpy response to the Pharisees’ manipulative question is, “Yes, but are we still listening?” Are we still thinking? When it comes to the relationship between your faith and your civic life, I can’t tell you what to do, Jesus says. You’re going to have to work that out for yourselves.

Two people who have worked out the relationship between their faith and civic lives are this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kailash Satyarthi of India, and Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. Kailash Satyarthi is Hindu, Malala Yousafzai is Muslim. In India, Satyarthi has worked tirelessly to end human trafficking and deplorable child labor practices. In Pakistan—and now globally—Yousafzai is working for accessible education for all people, especially girls.

In 2012 when she was 15, Malala was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban.  Miraculously, she was not killed. A short time later, Malala reflected on what she might do if she encountered her shooter. She imagines hitting him with her shoe, an extreme sign of disrespect in her culture.  After giving it some thought and reflecting on her Muslim faith, she decides against it.  To show such disrespect would make her no better than the shooter, Malala reasons.  If peace is to become real in the world, we must stop the cycle of violence.  Even the most powerless person in the world has power to do that:  stop the violence that flows from her or his own life.

It is her Muslim faith that informs Malala’s actions in the world. Her faith teaches her to respect the dignity of every person and to create peace (which is what the world Islam literally means). Malala ends her memoir with these words:  “Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country–this is my dream.” It is a dream firmly rooted in her faith.

What dreams grow out of your Christian faith? How are you working to fulfill those dreams? How will YOU vote on November 4th?

As you reflect on the relationship between your own faith and how you live that faith in the world, I want to share with you a song I wrote this summer about Malala. When I read Malala’s memoir a year ago, one line stuck with me. Malala does not remember the shooting, but she says that friends told her “the gunman’s hand was shaking as he fired.”

So, why did that man’s hand shake when he stopped Malala’s school bus, boarded it, and opened fire?  Was he nervous?  Had he been sent to do something he didn’t really want to do?  Was he born a killer or was someone trying to turn him into one?  Did the tremor in his hand speak a deeper truth than the bullet that ripped through the edge of Malala’s skull?  Did it signal, perhaps, a glimmer of hope that even those who commit acts of violence and terror might also prefer to live in peace?

As you listen to Malala’s story, you are invited to think of your own. How will you live your faith in the world? [‘Learn Peace’]

Learn Peace   

When he shot me — so they tell me — his hand was shaking.

Maybe that’s why, the bullet skewed wide, and kept him my life from taking.

Two years have passed, my body has healed, my spirit is thriving and whole.

Where is that man, with the shaking hand?  What is the state of his soul?  His soul?

I am Malala Yousafzai;  I was shot but I did not die.

I work for schools for every girl.  But I hope for everyone in the world

to learn peace.  To learn peace.

When news got out about my injury, everyone started praying for me.

The cards and gifts flooded in.

Their love helped heal me, this I see.  But now a question comes to me:

Who’ll pray for him?  Who’ll love him?  Who’ll heal him?

I am Malala Yousafzai;  I was shot, but I did not die.

I work for schools for every girl.  But I hope for everyone in the world

to learn peace.  To learn peace.  To live peace.

We must teach little girls and little boys….to live peace.

We must teach men and women of every race….to live peace.

We must teach nations around the globe….to live peace.

We must teach the Taliban and Boko Haram…to live peace.

We must teach Congress and the president…to live peace.

We must teach……………………to live peace.

We must teach………………….to live peace.

We must teach………………… live peace.

We must teach………………… live peace.

We must teach ourselves to live peace.  Can you live peace?  Will you live peace?  Will we live peace?  Peace.  Peace.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for the wholeness of us all.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  (C) 2014

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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