A King For Our Time

Last Sunday I, along with three other UCC ministers, participated in the installation service of the new pastor of the Church in the Gardens, in Forest Hills, Queens.  If you don’t know Forest Hills, it’s a gorgeous enclave of elegant Tudor mansions and manicured lawns.  You would hardly know you’re in New York City – which I think is the point. I had to get a special parking pass from the church office just to leave my car on the street because the streets in Forest Hills are private. That’s right. The streets are private. I was scandalized.

My scandal aside, the Church in the Gardens is a gorgeous facility – looking more Anglican than Congregational.  The service was beautiful and culturally diverse.  And it was obvious that the people love their new pastor.  Associate Conference Minister Freeman Palmer gave the sermon, and since it was the Sunday after the election, Freeman addressed what had happened the previous Tuesday.  But knowing that a Forest Hills congregation would be mixed, his remarks were measured.  He made his points, but he did it in a generous and pastoral way.  

After the service, there was an elegant reception in the church’s very elegant social hall.  But no sooner had the four visiting UCC ministers arrived at the reception, then a woman from the congregation cornered the Rev. Dr. Ruby Wilson, who happens to African American.  Without knowing how Dr. Wilson voted, the woman said: “We all need to get behind Trump now! Obama destroyed this country and Trump will bring us together.”  Dr. Wilson tried to keep her composure and engage in a meaningful conversation.  But meaningful conversation was not what the woman really wanted.  She wanted agreement.  After a while, Dr. Wilson politely excused herself.  Then this same parishioner went after Rev. Palmer, who also happens to be African American.  “I just hate it when preachers get political in the pulpit!” she exclaimed.  “And you UCC preachers are always doing that!”  After a few minutes of this, Rev. Palmer also excused himself.

Dr. Wilson and Rev. Palmer told me their stories as we nibbled on cupcakes in what we hoped would be a safe corner of the Fellowship Hall.  As I listened to their stories, I found myself getting angrier and angrier.  At first, I was angry because of what appeared to be the woman’s racism.  Why hadn’t she come to me and made her complaints to me?  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I was really angry about was not her opinion, but the fallacious, and oft repeated, notion that politics has no place in the church. 

How many of you have ever heard someone say that politics doesn’t belong in the church?  Perhaps what people really mean by that is that the church should not be a partisan organization.  I agree that the minister should never tell you who to vote for.  But I also think that the minister should always tell you what values to support.  So here goes.  Here is your minister being political: you should vote for justice and peace, equity and generosity every time. 

The word “politics” comes from the Greek work politikos, meaning "of, for, or relating to citizens” – “of, for or relating to the people.”  Politics is simply how we organize society and how we relate to one another.  And if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is anything, it’s certainly about how we relate to one another.  Almost everything Jesus ever said had political ramifications “of, for, or relating to people.”  He demanded fairness and justice for the least of these.  And he said it so often and so effectively that he deeply angered the political powers that be.  

That’s not always easy to see because over the years, we have dumped boatloads of sugar on top of the sayings of Jesus so that they have largely come to mean that we should be nice to others; that we should not rock the boat; and perhaps most dangerous of all, that Christian faith is somehow equal to being a good citizen.  But when you read the message of Jesus, and when you put it in the context of his original audience, almost everything he ever said was political.  In the end it got him killed. And think about it: you don’t get executed for teaching people to be nice.  

Our Lord was publically executed as a common criminal.  We often don’t think about that so starkly, but we should.  We imagine that somehow, someway the death of Jesus was simply ordained by God as a way for our sins to be forgiven.  But to remove the crucifixion from its political environment dilutes the saving message of the cross.  And once the message of the cross is diluted, then the church has no real role to play in society.  Instead we become country clubs of the saved, waiting rooms for heaven - when all the while Jesus called us to be salt and light in the world.

According to the political powers of his time, Jesus was an insurrectionist.  He was a dangerous troublemaker.  And governments stay in power and do whatever they please precisely because people don’t make trouble.  They stay quiet because we know from history how much it can cost us personally to stand up for justice.   

And so we stay quiet and we look for compromise in the face of violence and hatred.  That expectation is already part of our post-election public discourse.  Somehow, we are told, we’ll be better Americans if we ignore or downplay the ugly words that were spoken; the threats that were made; the policies that may soon be enacted.  There is a collective call for us all to come together for the sake of unity.  And while unity is a most worthy goal, it is never to be had at the expense of justice.  That’s what Jesus preached.  And it cost him everything. 

Jesus just wouldn’t stop talking about justice.  He told stories about it.  He proclaimed it.  He demonstrated it in healing and feeding miracles.  He declared that the first would be last and that the poor were favored.  He promised that God Almighty would set all this inequity on its head and that the Reign of God would surely come on this earth just as it is in heaven.  The political authorities told him to stop.  The political authorities tried to disperse his followers.  The political authorities tried to plant false information about him to destroy his movement.  And when none of that worked, they decided to destroy him.  

Today is The Reign of Christ Sunday, the Sunday wedged between the end of Ordinary time and the beginning of Advent.  The Reign of Christ sounds triumphalistic; a sort of winner-take-all Christianity.  And on this Sunday, the progressive preacher is given the difficult task of proclaiming how it is exactly that Christ reigns in this world.  Now if you listen to some of our brothers and sisters in the more conservative church, you will be told that Christ reigns through political power and domination.  Christ reigns because he will come again in glory and slay the wicked.  In this view, Christ is some sort of superhero; a man’s man who vanquishes evil.

On the day of his crucifixion, Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns on the head of Jesus and pronounced him “King of the Jews.”  And it is this crucified One who is our Sovereign. So if you want to see how Jesus reigns in this world, look at the cross.  Jesus reigns, Jesus is triumphant, by keeping company with the pain of the world. Jesus reigns by showing us how deep love can be.  Jesus reigns by his unflinching commitment to justice, no matter what the cost.  

We don’t know exactly what is coming to our world via this new American administration.  But we most certainly do know what our job as the church will be.  It is the same job we always have whether our candidate is in the White House or not.  Our job as the church of Jesus Christ is to do the very things that Jesus did: proclaim justice, confront evil and resist oppression.  Is that political?  You bet.  Can it be costly?  Absolutely.  But here is the promise of the Gospel: there is always new life and resurrection when you spend yourself for the sake of the least and the last and the lost