I believe very firmly in the kingdom of God — the realm of God — that day, that space, that season
in which the lame suddenly walk
and the blind miraculously see,
in which the deserts and places of drought yield a harvest
that isn’t bartered away by greedy leaders
or trampled underfoot by invading military forces
who storm a village to rape women of all ages,
a realm in which the gifts of our daughters and sons
are celebrated and empowered,
in which our elders and our sick are not hidden away in institutions
but drawn into the community to be cared for and
turned to for their wisdom and their dreams;
or bullied and beaten for how they look or how they act.
Such a realm of God — this possibility of a space in which justice and healing and community prevail — is a vision that is consistently prophesied, encouraged, chided, built and rebuilt throughout Biblical history:
to the prophets like Joel and Amos and Isaiah
to the living flesh of the Holiest of Holies that we call Jesus.
It’s a realm beautifully imagined in Isaiah, where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 1:16-17). We hear it in the scolding of God through Amos: “Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps; but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). The challenge and puzzle of God’s realm are presented by Jesus — “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20) — and affirmed in the foundation of Israel’s laws — “The God of gods, the Lord of lords executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
It’s no big surprise if I observe to you that the kingdom of God is not yet fully upon us! (That’s obvious!) But it’s less obvious whether we believe, collectively and individually, that the kingdom/the realm of God is a far-off thing that will appear at the end of time if we just wait for it … or if we believe that the realm of God is a near-by thing that we participate in here on earth. Is it a peaceful idea that’s limited to heaven, and we get to experience it after we die … or is it a very present challenge for us to live into and act out now?
What we believe about the realm of God matters very much, because it’s almost Election Day, which means that it’s time for us as people of faith to decide once again whether or not our beliefs about how God wants us to live in this world will inform our voting, or whether our faith and our politics are two entirely separate conversations that will never meet when we vote.
Christine O’Donnell (the Republican nominee running for the Senate in Delaware) took some flack recently for appearing not to know during a debate that the principle for the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Now, I absolutely believe that government and religion must remain separate, for the safety & integrity of the government and for the integrity & well-being of the church and of religions. However, I must say that I hear O’Donnell hinting at something that is — despite her opinion of the First Amendment — true, something that our conservative brothers & sisters generally practice better than us moderate & progressive Christians, which is, that faith does and should inform our politics. (Again, not our government, although that’s happening these days in very problematic ways!) But faith should inform our individual politics: our voting, which boxes we mark, even our decision to participate in an election at all.
Just the fact that some of us are probably uncomfortable because I’m using words like “politics” and elections” in the pulpit tells us that we have placed significant psychological, theological, and practical gaps between the activities of our faith and the activities of our politics. But here’s why I believe that we’re called to bring our faith and our politics into the same conversation:
Jesus tells a parable about a well-to-do and deeply faithful religious leader, and an unimpressive cog-within-the-wheel suit-and-tie guy who worked for the government. (Now, we’re biased, because we know already that we’re supposed to scorn the Pharisee’s actions and celebrate the tax collector’s prayer in this parable, but the people listening to Jesus would have assumed the reverse. To help us hear the surprise element in the parable, imagine the Pharisee as a person you admire for his/her deep faith and well-intentioned living … and, for the tax collector character, imagine a politician you dislike.)
So Jesus tells this parable about a well-admired church leader and a disliked government worker, both coming to God in prayer. The church leader is pretty sure that life is good and that God is good, and he is grateful and blessed that God made him a good guy in the scheme of life. When he comes to pray to God, he leaves everything else about life at the door, and he prays to God to discuss only the good and churchy things of his life — how he tithes and worships regularly — and all that he needs God to do, really, is agree with him!
When the suit-and-tie government worker comes before God, he brings all of the junk of life with him: everything he’s seen in the course of doing his job that day, the people who are out of money, the people who are angry to see him collecting money, the papers full of new government rules that are handed down to him to impose, the lies that he’s told, the failures he’s experienced… Everything in his life comes with him into that moment of prayer; and he asks God to make a difference in the entirety of his life. “Have mercy!” he prays.
The respected church leader leaves everything at the door except for the nice churchy stuff, and he doesn’t need or ask anything from God. The reviled government worker brings the whole of his life into prayer, and he needs God to act!
The Pharisee in the parable doesn’t need the kingdom of God to be present on earth, doesn’t particularly need God to be active in the daily realities of life. He fasts, he gives a faithful offering from his income, so the world must be fine because he’s doing fine. He has no other expectations for himself or for God.
The tax collector needs a kingdom of God that is present and actively at work on earth. He prays with his fists clenched, pounding his own chest with longing for God to make a difference. He expects God to be active in his life and in the world, to be merciful and loving and just: “God, be merciful! Be present here! Be a generous and life-giving force at work in this world!” He knows that he is not fine, and he has seen that the world is not fine, and he believes that God is not going to wait until the sweet by-and-by to make a difference.
If the world is fine, if we are fine, and if we believe that the kingdom of God is a beautiful and just and peaceful reality that we will eventually see in heaven, then by all means there’s no reason to intersect our faith and our politics in the same conversation. And we can leave our politics at the door when we come to church, and we can leave our faith at the door when we go to the polling booths.
If, on the other hand, we see that the world is not fine, if we believe that the realm of God is a very present wrestling and a very present work, if we believe that God is not a far-off Being that rolled the dice eons ago and is simply watching the action with amusement but is a near-and-“with us” kind of God who is still active and engaged in life, then we cannot leave our politics at the door on Sundays or our faith at the door on election days.
When I set down my faith, when I leave it at the door, the only things left are my ego and my fear — which strikes me as a poor way to vote or make decisions, but it’s exactly the tone that we hear from the Pharisee in the parable! He prays with ego, “Thank you, God, that I am good,” and he prays with fear, “Thank you, God, that I am not like them.” If I set down my faith to vote, then the visions of the possibility of a realm of God unfolding in the world don’t matter, and I only vote with regard to my security and my fear of others.
If, on the other hand, I pick up my faith to vote, then I pick up the whole conversation about life — my life and our lives and the world’s lives —
whether we all can access health care
without a certain threshold of wealth,
whether children are empowered and educated,
whether or not we will continue to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear
when someone is shamed for being who they are
(flamboyant, butch, nappy hair, accented voice,
different social skills, different physical abilities)
if the world, if we, in our struggling for the fuller realm of God
will begin to believe the dreams of our youth
and hear the cries of the lonely and the impoverished
and welcome the stranger with open arms
and join hands with those who work for justice.
I believe, very much, in a present and still-coming kingdom of God. If we believe that the work of the realm of God is among us and a part of us, then our faith needs to participate in our politics…and not just on election day.
It can be hard to speak up for a faith that is inclusive, a faith that understands “family values” to include all families and households, a faith that looks to the Spirit of Restlessness rather than the Spirit of Security to inform its community. But if we don’t take our faith with us when we exit these church doors, if we don’t speak our faith in politics and in public, if we don’t talk about and work for a present & relevant kingdom of God, then we are letting ego and fear lead us to praying contentedly alongside the Pharisee!
God have mercy, we are horribly clumsy with our faith and our politics alike! And when you put us all together, in a collective religion or in a collective government, God knows that we don’t do much better!
But “God have mercy” is precisely the prayer that we need to offer! It’s the prayer of the tax collector, it’s a prayer for humility and wisdom, it’s the best starting point that we have as we try to faithfully keep our faith, our politics, and our hope for the work of the realm of God all together intentionally in conversation and in action.
May God have mercy. And may we not be afraid!
My sermon from 10/24/10 at Grace United Church of Christ.