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Politics and Religion, November 26, 2017

Politics and Religion

Every once in a while during my life as a priest and preacher, people would tell me, “Keep your politics out of the pulpit, preacher! Stick to religion!”

That’s the conventional wisdom isn’t it? You can’t mix politics and religion.

But that’s a problem on this last Sunday of the year when we celebrate the “Reign of Christ” or, as we used to call it, “Christ the King Sunday”. When you put “Christ” and “King” in the same phrase, you are mixing politics and religion right there.

So I want us to think about this a little differently today. I want to begin with something I said a month or so ago.

The was from Matthew, where they were trying to trap Jesus, and he asks for a coin. “Whose image?”  he asks. “The emperor,” they say. Jesus responds, In that case, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”

Some people think Jesus was separating life into two neat spheres, one labelled “secular” and the other labelled “sacred”. I suggested that Jesus never thought that way. You can’t separate life in sacred and secular realms. It all belongs to God. Everything in life belongs to God. All that we are, all that we say, all that we do—we do it in the presence of God. So when Jesus says to give to God, he’s talking about religion…and politics and economics and social life and everything that’s part of the way we live together.

We see a similar kind of thinking in today’s readings.

The opening verses of Ezekiel 34 condemn the “shepherds of Israel”—which is to say, Israel’s rulers. They were supposed to care for the people. But these rulers were more like Trump—they were in it only for themselves. They were the rich, like finance ministers who hide their money in offshore accounts. They passed legislation which benefitted their stock portfolios and enriched their cronies.

Therefore, says Ezekiel, God has had it with them. That’s where our reading began this morning—“Since you don’t take care of my flock, I myself will search for my sheep. I will seek them out. I will take care of them. I will rescue them. I will gather them to myself, and they will lie down in good grazing land, they will eat in rich pastures. I will seek the lost. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak.

“As for the fat and the rich, and the strong—I have had it with them. I will judge them. They butted the weak ones with their horns and scattered them, and now they will have their comeuppance.”

You can’t get more political than that. You can’t get more religious than that, either. God will be the good shepherd. God will take care of God’s people. God holds the oppressed and the marginalized within God’s embrace.

Then in Ephesians, we have a hymn to Christ reigning in glory. Christ is above all earthly rule, all earthly authority, all earthly power.

And how does Christ use that power and glory?

We read about that later in Ephesians—Christ’s work is to bind all people together. Christ’s work is to reconcile groups and nations. Christ’s work is to bring people together, and end any division among us. Christ’s work is to bring unity and reconciliation among all.

And our work as servants of Christ is to work together in love and peace, to work in partnership with Christ the King for the healing of the world. Our work is to live as citizens of that time and place where we live under the Reign of Christ. As people who are confident in God, we live according to God’s gospel values.

And what are those gospel values? One way to talk about God’s gospel values is what we read in the gospel this morning—“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Here’s the heart of the gospel: in the faces and lives of the least of the people around us, in the faces and lives of the least of our neighbours, in the faces and lives of the downtrodden and the lonely and the hungry—we see the face and life of God.

You can’t get more political than that. You can’t get more religious than that.

When we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we understand that we worship an odd sort of king. This is no king as we are used to. This king is a servant. This king’s throne is the cross. This king serves rather than ruling it over us.

And this king calls us to serve as well.

Notice what King Jesus says to the nations gathered before him in this scene: “As you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” Or: “As you failed to do it for the least of these, you didn’t do it for me.”

Notice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say, “You had the right or wrong political opinion about the least of these. You said the right or wrong prayers for the least of these. You had the right or wrong sense of empathy for the least of these.”

He said, “You fed me. You visited me. You welcomed me.”

4th century bishop and preacher John Chrysostom once said, “Jesus never said, ‘I was sick and you healed me; or I was in prison and you broke me out.’” King Jesus is not going to judge us on whether we accomplished extraordinary feats for the most vulnerable. King Jesus will only hold us accountable for such simple, ordinary acts as giving a meal, paying a visit, offering welcome.

But here’s the thing. In order to give a meal, we have to see and get close to those who are hungry. In order to visit a lonely person, we have to see that lonely person. In order to offer welcome, we have to open our hearts and our homes and our churches to people who may be different from us.

Also to the point is this: this is partly about personal action. We feed the hungry, we visit those who are lonely. But it also is partly about political action. We advocate for better housing for those who are homeless. We advocate for better education and health care, and for prison reform.

How much more political can you get? How much more religious can you get?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once observed, “It is always better to carry aid than it is to send it.” The saints know that the poor don’t need our pity so much. They need our friendship. And, for heaven’s sake, we need theirs.

If we take these readings seriously, then we will know that the poor are the hope of the world. Why? Because through them, we encounter Jesus who was hungry when he was being tempted, naked and thirsty on his cross, a stranger among his people, and a prisoner by judicial decree.

Here is how we know the King of Kings: he was and still is the poor stranger among us.

As Desmond Tutu once put it, “The gospel is not about pie in the sky; it’s about pie in the here and now!”

As people of God who live in this world, we know that everything belongs to God.

On this last Sunday of the Church Year, we affirm that if we love God, then we will love as God loves. If our values are gospel–values instead of the world’s values, then we will give as God gives and forgive as God forgives. If Christ really is King, then we can’t help but live as Christ taught.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

November 26, 2017 (Last Sunday after Pentecost, “The Reign of Christ”)

Matthew 25: 31–46

Ezekiel 34: 11–16, 20–24

Ephesians 1: 15–23