Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 25, 2017
The Second Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7A
You can tell that our politicians are anxiously anticipating the 2018 mid-term election year in America because they are practically tripping over one another these days to climb aboard the “holiness” bandwagon. At the evangelical Liberty University commencement ceremony a few weeks ago, Donald J. Trump offered his undying allegiance to so-called traditional values. The “Make America Great Again” agenda apparently includes returning America to its “Judeo-Christian roots” and “free market values,” aka laissez-faire capitalism. No matter what we may say in America about the constitutional separation of Church and State, like it or not, politics and religion are constant—albeit often uncomfortable—bedfellows in our culture. And very often, when religious leaders do occasionally summon the courage and audacity to intervene in matters of public policy, both sides in our “culture wars” are equal-opportunity critics who alternately applaud and pillory God and religion whenever it suits their comfort and convenience, regardless of political persuasion.
For example, after touting his formation and credentials as both an adherent of Ayn Rand’s libertarian philosophy and Roman Catholic social teaching, the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan expressed shock when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops repudiated his health-care bill as a disaster for the poor and the marginalized. Speaker Ryan had characterized that plan as a “mercy”; however, in the wake of Pope Francis’ jubilee “Year of Mercy,” such a plan is apparently not the sort of mercy and compassion the pontiff had in mind. And when some of those same Roman Catholic bishops threatened to withhold the sacrament of Holy Communion from Democrat politicians who fail to uphold integral human development and the Church’s consistent ethic of life, these politicians were outraged by any suggestion that there ought to be some congruence between their alleged private beliefs and matters of human rights and public policy. I’m afraid that, if the past is prologue, the handwriting is on the wall—if you will pardon the biblical metaphor—and we best brace ourselves for the usual soulful stew of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and mudslinging during the never-ending cycle of elections in the USA.
In our time, when all around the world religion is so often used as a front for political ideology, those among us who want to see our deepest values reflected in public policy are acutely aware that it’s no easy task—even with the best of intentions—to avoid the grave dangers of what the great Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr characterized as “religionized” politics and “politicized” religion. According to Niebuhr, true democracy at its best is about “finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” “Humankind’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” he continues, “and humankind’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.” And yet, the tragedy of so much faux religiosity is that, although we hear a great deal about religion and morality during our democratic election campaigns, little if any of the ethics and values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are actually brought to bear on the issues before us. In all of the banter and debate over the niceties of conventional mores, such as who may marry whom, or who may enter the country, we are not likely to hear many serious plans from our would-be leaders for eliminating structural poverty and injustice; obscene and growing income inequality; or eliminating the racism and sexism inherent in the social order of this country—what the Church’s social teaching does clearly, rightly, and definitively call the “deep structures of sin.” Too often, on the day after our elections, most of our politicians of every stripe suddenly lose their thunder and bluster and phony outrage and return to the familiar round of sleaze and greed and the crippling gridlock and polarization in Washington D.C. Our so-called leaders re-discover the largely unspoken, but familiar mantra of American politics: “I’ve got mine; now you go out there and get yours.” Meanwhile, in a society more divided and polarized now than at any time since the American Civil War, income inequality grows; immigration reform recedes into the distant political horizon; the military-industrial-congressional complex bloats; random mass-murder from unregulated firearms in our schools and shopping malls become almost weekly events; and the poor and the marginalized and the dispossessed continue to bear the blame and shame for their poverty and marginalization and dispossession at the “invisible hand of the market.”
So, should we Christians and Jews expect to bring our religious values and ethics into the civic discourse around public policy and electoral politics? If so, just how do we bring our genuine concerns, our deepest convictions, and our foundational values into the public square in a manner consonant with our democratic institutions and our obligation to protect and respect minority opinion? And, perhaps most importantly, what will be the cost of real missionary discipleship and evangelism in our violent, distracted, secularized, and polarized post-modern world, where the impetus is to relegate all religion to the individual and private sphere alone, and to make it just another elective affinity among many others?
It was into to a world very much like our own that the holy prophet Jeremiah, whose harsh words we have heard this morning, found himself. He was sent by God to announce to the corrupt and unfaithful covenant people in the Kingdom of Judah that their glory days were over, and that Jerusalem, with its recently reformed Temple, would fall. He even went so far as to say that the enemies of Judah were the chosen instruments of God’s justice; that the Babylonian king who would sack the holy city, execute the royal family, and drag the nobility all off into exile—priests and people alike—was performing the will of God who would withdraw the Shekinah, the “Divine Presence” from the land and would join God’s people in their exile. Needless to say, this was not music to the ears of either the people or their political and religious leaders. So, Jeremiah—the Jewish prophet most quoted by Jesus in the Gospels—suffered bitterly for his unhappy warning and message. Jeremiah was placed in the stocks, imprisoned, thrown down an empty cistern to starve, and finally sent into exile in Egypt. Nonetheless, the holy prophet could not restrain himself: he simply had to deliver the message entrusted to him by God, regardless of the dire personal cost, as we hear in our reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning.
Now, it is also clear from today’s Gospel that Jesus expects this same passionate commitment from his disciples in their proclamation of his “good news” concerning the coming “kingdom of God”—which, as we know, is often very bad news for those invested in the status quo and for the “powers and principalities” of this world. Hence, Jesus also anticipates rejection and mistreatment for him and for his disciples. Then, as now, God’s word to God’s covenant people is never popular, especially in times of peril and change and uncertainty. The life of God’s messengers of peace and justice is always in grave danger. Misunderstanding and persecution—even from our nearest and dearest—are the common and expected lot of those who bring tidings of the reign of God, with its uncompromising demands for justice, peace, and the equal and inalienable dignity of every human person. For the corrupt beneficiaries of “the deep structures of sin” in our society, the “shalom,” the “peace of God,” often feels like a sword of division. And those who push for truly “radical” change—in the true sense of that term of “going to the “radix,” the very “root” of a problem—are often dismissed as cranks and accused of fomenting “class warfare.” Even Pope Francis, whose recent Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, unequivocally condemns the ravages of liberal capitalism’s promotion of growing income inequality and the “globalization of Indifference” toward the poor and the migrant, has suffered the obloquy of many conservative and libertarian politicians. But then, in no uncertain terms, Jesus reminds his disciples then and now that people will do to them what they did to him—even to the point of death on a Roman cross, “for a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”
Indeed! To be like the Teacher and Master—easier said than done. And yet, this is the terrible and chilling challenge of this morning’s Gospel. Our Lord Jesus Christ is asking us if we are willing to pay the terrible cost of discipleship by demanding that Gospel values inform public policy both in and out of season, and in a world so profoundly hostile and at odds with the truth and the values and the wisdom of its message of true peace and justice. Because—let’s face it—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with its radical insistence upon non-violence; simple justice for the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed, and the stranger, together with its ethic of genuine love for God and neighbor—even of one’s enemies—is still profoundly counter-cultural. A Gospel proclaiming that a mysterious and unseen God is the highest aspiration and the deepest longing of the human heart, and the only true purpose and goal of human existence—in short, a Gospel about a God of faithfulness and steadfast love who must be loved and valued above every other love and value, bar none—has almost nothing in common with the corrupted currents of this world and its politics as we know and experience them day after weary day. And those who unremittingly and unhesitatingly insist on this Gospel will—sooner or later—come into collision with the people, institutions, and culture around them. Jesus is telling us today that it simply cannot be avoided and, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and executed for his opposition to the Nazi regime, there is no “cheap grace.” In fact, if this radical confrontation with the goals and values of our culture does not occur, regardless of our status or station in the Church or society, then it’s probably time for some serious soul-searching, repentance, and conversion of life: the common, daily vocation of God’s covenant people.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, we are, together with the Jewish people, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” by adoption. We are also heirs of God’s prophets and we, like they, may not rest until the “kingdom of God” comes in all its fullness with Jesus our Messiah at “the end of days.” Through our Baptismal Covenant, God has called us Christians to be active participants in God’s as yet unfinished work of creation by practicing “tikkun olam,” the “repair of the world.” So let us run to the “housetops,” proclaiming in the “light” what we have heard “whispered” in the “dark.” We have nothing to fear because we have Jesus’ promise in today’s Gospel that “even the hairs of your head are all counted.” We are truly loved and valued. This, therefore, gives us both the privilege and the holy license to become true “fools for Christ’s sake”—whatever the cost to us in this fleeting and passing life—because we “do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.” Let us pray, then, for the strength and courage and voice to fulfill our high calling and sacred task—regardless of the impediments—and to witness always and everywhere in the public square to God and to the values of the Gospel as missionary disciples and evangelists of Jesus Christ, even in the midst and at the cost of great suffering and tribulation.