November 11, 2018
In this gospel reading, we heard Jesus warning his listeners about the scribes, then he contrasted them with the widow who gave her mites. I want to re-word Jesus' quote to use a different class of people to contrast a humble widow with.
“Beware of the politicians, who like to walk around in blue suits and red ties, and to be greeted with respect in the shopping malls, and to have the best seats in the house and places of honor at banquets! They devour peoples taxes and for the sake of appearance give long speeches.”
We just got through another election cycle. On the state and national levels, we were inundated with negative ads. The results are now in and did you hear what the pollsters have reported on Tuesday's outcomes? The consensus on the election is that 100% of Americans think 50% of Americans have lost their minds.
I have waited until the election was over to talk about the environment in which this country practices her politics. But as I do, I will seek to keep an eye on what it means for us; how ought we as Christians look at our political situation and how ought we to live as citizens?
I receive two biweekly magazines that cover the news from a Christian perspective; The World Magazine and The Christian Century. One leans quite a ways to the left and one quite a ways to to right. Personally, I think it is helpful to get both sides of the news cycle. One of the causes of our division is that one side gets all their news from Fox News and the other from MSNBC. Reading about, listening to, trying to understand other opinions can keep us from becoming totally entrenched in one position with no understanding of the other side. This philosophy works in questions of religion as well. If we only learn one side of an issue, we are not allowing the Holy Spirit to use our intelligence to make wise decision.
In the weeks leading up to the election, these two news magazines naturally had lots of articles trying to discern the leanings of the voters. But two articles really stood out to me, one from each magazine. And they were not articles specifically about this election, but about politics and partisanship and how our Christian faith should influence our politics.
One dealt with how we have linked our identity to our political party. Peter Marty writes, “Americans are increasingly defining themselves by their partisan identity. For reasons that may have to do with the loss of deeper purpose, the disintegration of traditional communal bonds, or a general indifference to religion and the church, tribalism is spiking.” The point he makes in his editorial is that our party, our political attachments, our “tribe” can become a kind of idol. An idol is anything that becomes more important than God. There are any number of things that become idols in our lives. But today we are looking at our political attachments. Our particular party may become for us a kind of “sacred purpose”. We may be promised much, but they are promises that can't be fulfilled, promises which leave us empty in the end.
The other editorial is by Marvin Olasky. He is the one who brought up Pelagius. I need to tell you about Pelagius. Around the start of the 5th century, he was a British monk and theologian. Even though 400 years had passed since the resurrection of Jesus, the church was still sorting out its doctrine. The doctrine Pelagius proposed is called Pelagianism. Pelagius believed and taught that people could be good without God's influence. He was arguing against the doctrine of original sin—the definition of original sin is this: “the tendency to sin innate in all human beings, held to be inherited from Adam in consequence of the Fall. The concept of original sin was developed in the writings of St. Augustine.” I've talked about this before, we can agree, I believe, that human's do indeed have an innate tendency toward sin. Original sin is considered one of the bedrock doctrines of Christianity; without it the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is largely unnecessary.
Pelagianism's definition is this: “the belief in Christianity that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid.” Even though several church assemblies and church councils condemned Pelagianism, it remains a philosophy shared in many circles still today. It comes up again and again through the centuries as we try to understand grace in light of our many failures to live up to even our own expectations.
I love this kind of church history, but understand most of you don't, so I will get to the point. And it is not my point but Olasky's; there seems to be a thread of Pelagianism in both of our political parties. I've shied away from using Republican and Democrat to this point, but he uses Pelagianism to help us point out the pitfalls in putting too much trust in either party. Again, this theory says that we are basically good and given the choice between good and evil will choose good. Quote: “Some Democrats love to claim the poor are virtually sinless. Some Republicans say the same things about the rich.” How do these beliefs play out in legislation? Democratically, the assumption is that poor people, down and outers, the homeless and downtrodden are naturally good. And if they are given their own home, or food, or money they will refrain from drug and alcohol abuse and they will become productive citizens. This Democratic Pelagianism assumes that society is to blame for individual problems. And of course, there is a lot of truth to that. But we have also discovered that given more opportunity, many people will take advantage of it; I believe that tendency to sin is in all of us.
Republican Pelagianism is similar, but goes more like this; the rich, the executives, the CEOs are naturally good and so good-hearted and generous. If the government makes cuts in Corporate taxes, those corporate executives will naturally create more jobs and will share their new-found wealth into a now growing economy. In reality, many or most executives will maximize their own income and their stockholders profits with only small amounts trickling down.
That's enough politics; and I am afraid I am not the most positive person when it comes to judging our career politicians in Washington. But I do believe in the doctrine of original sin. We don't need to be taught to be selfish or greedy, it shows up even in the nursery. How are infants at sharing without parental influence? But if we go back 2000 years and take another look at those scribes in light of Pelagianism and Augustinians, maybe we will uncover how we ought to be living in light of the offer of grace Jesus brings.
It is possible that our faith journeys can bring us to be like those scribes. We do that by practicing faith only to be seen as loving and respectable, and then working to see that things get done our way. We can also have faith journeys like our political parties, making our particular brand of religion an idol. I heard an interesting term this week at our cluster meeting, bibleolotry; making an idol of the bible. While we base our faith on the bible, God alone is our Lord and master.
The second half of our reading shared the story of a widow who gave all she had out of her love for God. It wasn't prudent. It wasn't wise in the eyes of the world. She was placing all her trust in God's provision. But I have a feeling that her sacrifice brought her joy and freedom, grace and love, faith and hope. She had no agenda other than to worship God. May we learn to put God first, before all earthly idols, before political gains, before looking good in the eyes of the people around us.
So, how do we measure up to those scribes? How are we doing at living out religion today? Are we gathered here as a group of saints celebrating our wisdom in following Jesus-scribes and Pharisees? Or are we here as a group of sinners celebrating the forgiveness of sins by Jesus-like the widow choosing faith over religion? Those scribes had it figured out. And they were going to make sure everyone knew they had it figured out. God was on their side. Not unlike the politics of today; both parties have it figured out and know that God is on their side. We need to be careful that as members of the faith community, we don't live with that attitude. We may become judgmental, believing that we and we alone are right in our beliefs and all those other churches are wrong. Faith is not us vs them, it is us and God. Our religion is not to be based on power and fear...which is the religion of politics. Our religion is not to exploit the powerless and support the powerful. We are not to reflect the values of the political world, but the values that Jesus taught; love God and love your neighbor. Giving too much attention to the idol of politics takes away the proper attention to be given to Jesus...and by association, to the powerless, the oppressed, the homeless, the widow, our neighbors. I understand there is a level of prestige, of influence, or power that goes along with being part of the “empire.” But too often those feelings are based on fear; fear of being the powerless, fear of the oppressors' power, fear of the forces that can be brought to bear on dissenters.
I'm reading a book, historical fiction from the time of Christ. David ben Lazarus spoke of the government of their time, listen with an ear for how today's government often operates, “fear of Rome is like a blindfold that blocks out the light of truth. We Jews have fallen because of fear. We have given up our freedoms We compromise our beliefs as long as it is others who are brutalized and not we ourselves. Terror is a powerful religion. The spirit of fear is a god that takes the human heart captive. But our God longs to fill our hearts with joy and freedom.” God longs to fill our hearts with joy and freedom today. The government, the politicians can't do that and often do the opposite. Immigration, racial profiling, abuses of power, fear mongering, threats and violence... there is a lot of fear in our politics these days. But God loves us and we know that perfect love casts out fear. Live in the joy and freedom that God brings. Like the faithful widow, put all your trust in God and god alone, who brings grace and love, faith and hope and freedom from fear. Amen.
Hymn: God of our Fathers 526