Saturday, September 27, 2008

Our Religious and Our Political Calling

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church, Rochester, NY on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 21, 2008: Matthew 20:1-16

Are you envious because I am generous?

The parable we just heard grates on us. By any standard we have, the landowner acts unjustly. Those who work more should be paid more. That’s simply fair.

Now this is when I am supposed to remind you that this is a parable, so don’t take it literally. It’s an allegory. The wages are the grace of God, which everyone receives in the same measure no matter how deserving they are.

And that’s a good message.

But it’s not the only message in the parable. Jesus told parables in part because they are multi-layered, they can mean different things on different levels. And that means that we can not easily dismiss the economic message that is here.

God calls us to a different kind of generosity, a different kind of economics, a different kind of fairness, a different vision of how we provide for one another’s welfare in this world.

And suddenly, I know, I am treading on very thin ice. Mixing religion and economics or religion and politics is dicey business in our culture, or any culture, for that matter. It is perhaps exacerbated in the United States because of the constitutional separation of church and state, but that separation is not the same as religion and politics. Martin Luther King, Jr once responded to criticism of his mixing of religion and politics by saying, rather bluntly, “My religion is my politics.” And as uncomfortable as it is, that is as it should be.

It is, I believe, the vision of the Bible. We would all be amazed by how much the Bible would shrink if we took out all the parts that mix religion with politics, or religion with economics, or a vision of social justice in general. Today’s parable is among the things that would go away.

This appropriate mixing of religion and politics is what the Anti-poverty campaign of the Sojourner’s community is all about. It is asking us, urging us, to take seriously the social justice vision of the Bible, when we evaluate candidates for political office and decide how to cast our vote.

A fundamental assumption of this campaign, and a biblically correct one, I believe, is that God is anti-poverty. God made a creation where there was enough for everybody and that remains God’s dream and God’s standard for our lives. No one should or need go without the basic necessities of life, including the right the founders of this country claimed in the Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness.” Everyone has a right to flourish.

Now I suspect that all of us would agree with that sentiment, until perhaps we started getting practical about it. Health care for all sounds good until taxpayers have to pay for it. A living wage for all sounds good until it means that corporate executives and even middle management have to make less so there is more for workers. Good job opportunities sound good until it means that companies are penalized for moving jobs somewhere else in the world because labor is cheaper.

You see, there is a certain order to our life as a society, an order that we don’t want to admit to, but is very real. And that order includes a goodly number of people living on the bottom of the heap. It’s only logical. We create jobs with wages that fall below the poverty level, which means that we accept the fact that there will be people who have to live below the poverty level. And it doesn’t matter whether they work really hard or not, they’re still going to fall short. There are people—a lot of them—in this very neighborhood I dare say who are working two jobs and still fall below the poverty level, because those are the kind of jobs that are out there.

Even in the church we have had this assumption. We have even believed that God created this order. Most of you probably know the old hymn

All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.

It’s a bright, cheery hymn about the goodness of God’s creation. When that hymn was written in the nineteenth century, however, this was one of the verses:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Let me make it clear: that is an unbiblical, even anti-biblical vision. Yes, Jesus once said, “You will always have the poor with you.” I take that as a pessimistic statement about the human will for equality, not how God intends creation to work.

And we do pay, pay in so many ways, for our acceptance of this unbiblical order of economic haves and have-nots. The violence that remains epidemic on our streets is just one of those ways. Thirty people murdered in the city thus far: three recently in the 19th Ward, six of them teenagers, three of them 15 years old including young Donald Stephens earlier this week.

And we can say that they just shouldn’t do it, that violence is no answer to anybody’s problems, but the bottom line is that thousands of people in this city don’t see any way they will ever pursue happiness, much less than flourish and hopelessness results in destructiveness as sure as the day follows the night.

This means that a serious campaign to eradicate poverty is a matter of life and death for our children, which makes it a matter of life and death for God.

The dilemma in all of this is that we need to maintain some order in our society. We do. But the problem is that our order is often at the expense of justice, and when it is, the God of the Bible is not pleased.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says,

Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is no friend to order, but insists on justice and is ready and able to intervene in decisive ways, against legitimized order if necessary, to establish justice. If God must choose between order and justice, God characteristically chooses justice.[1]

Now all of this does not give us much practicality. The Bible does not contain the blueprint of a divinely-inspired economic system, unfortunately. We have to make our own decisions, but they are decisions to be made within a vision, within a set of overarching values: that God has made a creation in which there is enough for everybody, that we are responsible together for how people are able to live, and that everyone has the right to have at least the tools to flourish.

Those are the values we need desperately to have if we are to follow the God of the Bible. Those are the values we need to keep in the forefront of our hearts and minds when we make decisions about how we are going to vote. Those are the values we need to hold dear when we try to influence those in elected office and in leadership in the business community. And try to influence them we must, for the sake of our fellow human beings and for the sake of God.

It is not easy coming to terms with the generosity of God. It will always be a struggle and we will fall short, but try we can and must, and in real, practical ways that take real, practical steps toward establishing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. That is both our religious and our political calling.

[1] Peace (Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 110-111.

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