May 05, 2006

National Day of Prayer Sermon

This is the transcript of a sermon I preached yesterday at the city of Temple's National Day of Prayer observance. I had lots of very positive feedback...but I doubt I'll get asked to do anything like this for a while, at least in Temple! Let me know what you think...

In an editorial published about a month ago in the New York Times, Garry Wills, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of the book What Jesus Meant, made the following provocative statement: “There is no such thing as a ‘Christian politics.’ If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian.” He went on to quote Jesus’s words to Pilate that I read a moment ago, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and to conclude with the assertion, “Jesus brought no political message or program.”

Wills’s intent, of course, is to incite readers by challenging our notions of who Jesus is, why he came, and how his followers ought to engage the social and cultural issues of our day. (He does this very effectively, by the way; his argument is made up mostly of quotations from the gospels, and by the end of the editorial you’re convinced he knows Jesus better than the oldest, sweetest grandmother that graces a pew in your church.) And I think Wills rattles our chains at just the right moment. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jesus (or at least, some caricature of Jesus) has become a very popular person in America. He’s on TV; he’s in the movies; he’s on the cover of news magazines (which is a big step up from the conspiracy-theory-tabloids, if you ask me); he’s getting airplay on the talk show circuit. When the spin machine really gets wound up, we might be led to think that he’s helping plan Democratic campaign strategy for 2008 or advising the White House on domestic policy issues. The name of Jesus carries more weight in this country today than it has in a long, long time…maybe forever.

Which is why I think it’s just the right time for Jesus’ followers to ask themselves the question, “What does the Lord mean when he says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’” With all the buzz and hype and spin out there, we need to get this thing absolutely clear, and we need to do it now. Only after we’ve answered this question can we begin working for his kingdom in the context of our own nation, society, and culture.

Jesus means that it is beneath him to align himself with any political party or political system. After the mob made their angry accusations against Jesus on the steps of Pilate’s house, the Roman governor brings Jesus inside for a private chat. “Are you the king of the Jews,” he asks, “Because we can settle this thing right now, you and I. They can’t do anything to you unless I agree to it, and right now, I’m giving you your chance to come out on top. You can walk out of this room as a friend of the governor, a friend of Rome. You’ll be completely free to preach and teach in the city; you’ll enjoy the protection of my friendship wherever you go in Judea.” Pilate’s no fool; he knows Caiaphas, the high priest, is trying to manipulate him, and here he sees an opportunity to turn the tables on him. But Jesus is no fool either. He knows that aligning himself with Pilate will saddle him with obligations that run counter to his mission. Jesus proclaimed long before that he was under obligation to do the will of the one who sent him, and as we all know, no one can serve two masters.

He means that no political party or system can ever truly align itself with him, either. When Pilate tries to pin Jesus down to an answer to his question, “Are you the king of the Jews,” Jesus tosses him this bone: “Yep, I’m a king. I’m a king in the sense that I came into the world to testify to the truth, and everyone who is on truth’s side listens to what I say. So I guess that makes me the king of truth.” You’ll forgive me for being a little cynical (I’m Generation X; it’s in my DNA), but Pilate’s response shines a spotlight on the reason why no political party or system can ever truly align itself with Jesus. “What is truth?” Pilate isn’t interested in philosophical discourse here; he’s getting impatient. He’s a busy man, he’s got an angry mob at the front door, and besides that he’s got to do that thing where he releases one prisoner because it’s a holiday. Jesus’s time is up; Pilate’s got work to do. Generally speaking, political systems don’t operate on the principle of truth; they operate on the principle of results, and generally speaking, we like it that way. But even if we’re okay with the fact that expediency occasionally trumps truth, that doesn’t mean Jesus is.

He means that as his followers, we would be wise not to co-opt the methods of the world into the purposes of his kingdom. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews,” he tells Pilate. But that’s not happening. Now, it’s tempting for us to pass judgment on Jesus’s disciples at this point; they’re all cowering in closets and basements, with the exception of Peter, who’s following along at a safe distance and trying to hide his Galilean accent. But when you think about it, they are doing exactly what Jesus said they would do, what he told them to do: “For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered,’” and Satan is having his way with Peter, sifting him like wheat. And because they are suffering like this, because they are out of the way, Jesus is rapidly approaching his destiny unhindered by their misconceptions or their ill-conceived attempts to bring about the kingdom. Because they are suffering at the hands of the political institutions of the day, the salvation of the world is about to be won. Sounds a little radical, doesn’t it?

So what does all this have to do with the National Day of Prayer? Everything. I ask you, Christian, when you pray for America today, what do you pray? Do you pray that Christians might wield greater influence over our government institutions? I’m a student of church history, and if church history teaches us anything about what to pray for our nation, it teaches that we should not pray to be given worldly power or influence. We Christians have traditionally not done well with power. In fact, we have on virtually every occasion come to abuse that power, to wield it against human freedom and in favor of oppression and tyranny. The Christianized Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the bloody quelling of the peasants’ revolt in the Protestant states of Luther’s Germany, the defense of slavery in the American south in the 19th century. Why in the world would we pray for power or control of anything? “My kingdom is not of this world, it is from another place.”

Instead, let’s pray for something radical. Let’s pray to be humbled, “for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Let’s pray to be made weak, for “my strength is made perfect in your weakness,” and when we are weak, we are strong. And let’s pray to be made poor, for “has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom?” Let’s pray to be made meek, for in the end, “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

“Those who honor me, I will honor,” God says in the verse that serves as the theme for today’s observance. May we always remember, may we never forget, that we honor God not by the results we produce, but by the methods we utilize; not by our achievements, but by our obedience.


At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Richie said...

Here here!

or rather

Hear, hear!


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