For eight weeks this fall, we’re riffing off the title of Parker Palmer’s beautiful little book On the Brink of Everything. It’s a book about discovery and wonder and about change and threats, and our little pastoral team felt something timely and important in this.
Today I felt like I needed to say a few things about an area of life where many of us experience fear and threat and frustration, that area being politics. Now I know that some of you love it when I connect our sacred texts and faith with contemporary controversy. For some of you, that seems important. I also know that some of you hate it when I do this. You want Sundays to be a refuge from the controversy and turmoil of public life, and it’s upsetting to you if church feels at all political. I just want you to know I’m aware of this and the rest of this series will go to other places entirely.
That said, politics is getting louder, not quieter. We’re already into our interminably long election season. And just this past week, we had the announcement of the start of presidential impeachment hearings. I checked both the Herald and the Globe’s most frequently read and sent stories the day I was working on this talk, and Boston being Boston, the leading story on each paper was about the Red Sox or the Patriots, but all the others were about politics.
Our scriptures and our faith do not come out of a democratic age, so the vocabulary is different, but themes of politics and public life are all over the place. Because faith is both a private and a public matter. And today, I’m not going to tell you who do vote for or what cause to support in politics. We’d never endorse someone here, and I’d never expect this community to agree on our politics. But I do want to encourage us toward spiritually healthier political engagement. Toward thinking and attitude about politics that helps us live well; that helps us be healthy, generous people; that helps us be engaged in public life, however it is we do that, both usefully and joyfully, as I think we’re meant to be.
I’ve got three postures I want to encourage today – no surprises, they’re all in your program already under, “Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing.”
As I said, the Bible’s talk about public life and politics was written in really different conditions than ours. Most of the Bible was written by people of a minority group, living under large, colonial empires. They didn’t know anything about voting or democracy, presidents or parliaments. And when the Bible’s writers do look back on what they’d consider their own independent government, they looked back to a four hundred period of the ancient kingdom of Israel, that for most of those years, was divided into two small kingdoms – Israel to the North, and Judah to the South.
We’re going to read a short excerpt of a passage that comes from the culture and politics of the southern kingdom of Judah, when they were threatened by the empire of Assyria, who had already conquered their cousins to the north. Here’s a bit of what Isaiah has to say to them:
Isaiah 31:1-3 (CEB)
Doom to those going down to Egypt for help!
They rely on horses,
trust in chariots because they are many,
and on riders because they are very strong.
But they don’t look to the holy one of Israel;
they don’t seek the Lord.
2 But God also knows how to bring disaster;
he has not taken back his words.
God will rise up against the house of evildoers
and against the help of those who do wrong.
3 Egypt is human and not divine;
their horses are flesh and not spirit.
The Lord will extend his hand;
the helper will stumble,
those helped will fall,
and they will all die together.
If you are afraid, it’s natural to think – what can help me? Who or what can remove this fear? Can make me secure? If you feel like something important to you is under threat, it’s natural to hope that someone will save you.
For Judah, this was Egypt. If the big, bad neighbors to the north threaten you, perhaps the kingdom to the South can save you. Lean on Egypt. If one side fails you, the other side will save the day.
But the prophets again and again warned against the dangers of this way of thinking. They were like Egypt doesn’t have your best interests in mind either. They too want what they want for themselves. They are not the good guys coming to save you.
And here, Isaiah says that people you think will save the day are also nowhere near as powerful as they say they are or you hope they will be. Egypt seems powerful, and the symbols and technology of their power look impressive. But they aren’t.
Egypt after all is human, not God. In Hebrew, these words are adam and el. El is kind of a generic word for God, that could mesh with any religion. And adam refers to humankind, both the original human figure Adam and literally “the ground” or “dust”. And their technology of power, their horses, are flesh, weakness, not spirit, vitality, life.
God, who is unseen Spirit, is the giver and renewer of life. Egypt is just human, just dust. What you want from power is to save you, to protect or give you life, but they can’t do that. They’re just people like you, they’re only dust.
I’d say this holds true in our politics as well. People that promise the world, people we think are coming to save the day, just aren’t. They have their own things they want, likely more than they have our good in mind. And they have way less power than they say they do, or than you think they have.
I went through this kind of painful but important season a few years ago that I don’t think I’ve ever told you about.
I had just turned 40, and I was new as your lead pastor. And our church was going through some change and conflict back then that wasn’t easy for any of us, and it certainly wasn’t easy for me. And I found myself hoping that there would be mentors or wise people in my life that would show me or tell me what to do.
But there weren’t. In fact, again and again, people I thought I might look up to for help were just disappointing me. My parents, someone I’d considered to be a pastor in my life, some other people I hoped were going to step up as mentors. In one case, I had been let down and disappointed, in kind of a spectacularly awful way. In another case, I was learning new things about that person that called my trust into question. And in another, people were just too busy with their own problems to be available to me.
I remember talking to a friend of mine about this, wondering if at a certain age, we run out of heroes, sometimes even run out of people to look up to. And my friend encouraged me to pray about this. And when I talked to God about this, I was reminded of this thing I used to teach when I was an English teacher. Back then, I’d taught coming of age literature a fair bit and always told my teenage students that in coming of age literature, one thing that happens is that the main character learns that adults are people too. That grownups have all their own flaws and limitations. And I remember feeling like God was showing me I was going through my own mid-life version of the same thing: learning again that all of us are figuring out our own stuff, and that no one is perfect. No one’s going to show up with a plan for me. No one is coming to save me.
And dreary as this sounds, I remember being aware that from God’s perspective, it was good news that I was seeing this. It’s a good thing to see that everyone is only dust.
I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace this summer. Biggest waste of my time ever. The thing is interminably long, more than 1200 pages, most of which I didn’t even enjoy. Don’t ask why. I’m a sucker sometimes.
But this thing I’m talking about today, at least Tolstoy is onto. He’s writing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and Russia’s supposedly heroic resistance. And in a time when history was still a story of supposedly great men – generals and kings that ruled and shaped history, Tolstoy calls BS on all that. He’s like neither Napoleon nor the tsar and generals of Russia had the kind of influence or power they think they did. They’re not all that special.
And then Tolstoy says when you realize that great leaders don’t control history, you might wonder if God is controlling everything instead. And he says we can’t believe that either. History and human affairs are too random. They’re not consistently good or evil. They don’t follow a linear direction anywhere. God isn’t micromanaging and controlling all people and events either.
Instead, history and life move forward through all our collective freedom and contingencies. We all have these unseen ways we’re shaped and hemmed in by our history, our culture, our limitations. We do stuff, usually not really understanding why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. And yet we also have the freedom to cooperate with the forces of our times or not, to follow our instincts or whatever other forces are acting upon us in our lives, or not.
That’s what makes life and history, this weird and complicated and largely unseen set of forces acting upon us, and then whatever freedom and agency we have to choose how we’re going to respond. That’s all you’ve got, that’s all I’ve got. That’s all our representatives have, and it’s all someone like the president has either.
We all have power and choices. But none of us is god, none of us is life-giving spirit. We’re flesh and dust. We’ve got to lower our expectations of everybody, especially when they’re promising us the moon.
You and me, we’re dust. Our president, dust. All the people lining up to run against him, dust. We don’t need to fear them and we don’t need to buy into their hype. They don’t care about any of us as much as they say they do. They can’t do as much as they say they can. And they’re certainly not coming to save us.
Lower your expectations, friends. Let’s remember what the scriptures teach, that it is the power of God and not politicians or anyone else, to give life and to save.
You might have noticed, though, that in my little War and Peace bit, I mentioned that most of us don’t believe God’s power works in micromanaging and controlling every person and event in life.
History, science, even our own experiences tell us that can’t be true. We can’t imagine that every day God micromanages the weather, tossing sunny days at some and hurricanes at others. We don’t want to believe that God predestined every tyrant and killer to do horrendous things to others. We like to think that we have some choices in the world ourselves, that all our thoughts and actions aren’t just hardwired into our fate by some giant programmer in the sky.
So if that’s so, if we’re all partly responding to stuff going on around us in the past and present, and partly making free choices too, how is it that God acts to bring life and to save? How can we look to God for help in our lives anywhere, including looking to God to help us in public life and politics?
Well, this is kind of a big topic that theologians and philosophers have been working on for millenia, so why don’t I give it just a few minutes, OK?
The Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman likes to remind us that most of the Bible is poetry, not prose. It evokes more than it explains. It uses imagery and paradox and provocation to nudge us toward God and truth, rather than laying things out for us in linear arguments.
I like to think this is because this is maybe what truth is like, and maybe what God is like – personal and directional, moving us toward goodness and beauty and wisdom, not a set of proofs or abstract arguments.
Anyway, the poetry of the prophets I think gives us a picture of how God saves, and a couple nudges for spiritually healthy ways to engage in politics in particular.
One section from the prophet Micah, who famously tells us that what God wants of people in life is to “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.” A little earlier, he says this:
Micah 4:1-4 (CEB)
But in the days to come,
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of the mountains;
it will be lifted above the hills;
peoples will stream to it.
2 Many nations will go and say:
“Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of Jacob’s God,
so that he may teach us his ways
and we may walk in God’s paths!”
Instruction will come from Zion
and the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
3 God will judge between the nations
and settle disputes of mighty nations,
which are far away.
They will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war.
4 All will sit underneath their own grapevines,
under their own fig trees.
There will be no one to terrify them;
for the mouth of the Lord of heavenly forces has spoken.
Incredible poetry, isn’t it?
Now there’s a way to imagine this scene like God shows up out of the sky onto a mountain. And then that mountain gets so big, that everyone can see God there, and then people all around the earth make pilgrimage to that giant mountain to hear God. And then God is both really loud and really wise, so that all people learn wisdom and all international disputes are settled, and everyone commits to peace, so much peace that we all go back home and plant our own vineyard and orchards and sit and drink our wine and eat our figs in peace forevermore, amen!
And hey, if that’s how it’s going to happen, cool. I’ll take that. I can imagine worse things, right?
But it doesn’t really make sense if we take it super literally, does it?
I mean, the passage is likely referring to the temple mount of Jerusalem, which isn’t a very big mountain at all and certainly isn’t going to grow so large that everyone in the world can see it. And even if it did, no matter how big it got, on a round earth, everyone seeing it would never be possible. And then there’s the question of how 7 or 8 billion people, or however many there are of us these days, would ever all get to the same mountain at the same time, and how in the world we’d hear God teach us if we could do that.
It just doesn’t add up on these terms.
Which it was never meant to. It’s poetry.
Here’s how I read it as a follower of Jesus.
I think God’s teacher, descended to earth, is Jesus. And I think how all people’s stream to the wisdom of God is through our attraction and devotion to the person and teaching of Jesus. We get to flock to God’s wisdom wherever we are, without even moving our feet a whole lot.
From there, our devotion – dare I even say our obedience – to the teaching and person of Jesus will fill us with ever-increasing wisdom and inspire and equip us for ever-increasing peacemaking.
And as we now know from the musical Hamilton, George Washington himself dreamed that in this country, amongst others as well, our commitments to peace would make it more likely that each of us could enjoy security and prosperity, that we could flourish in peace, each of us under our own vine, so to speak.
It’s a beautiful hope and vision, isn’t it?
And it’s one where God has God’s part, and we together have ours.
God’s part is to speak wisdom and peace in the person of Jesus. God’s part is to be present in all places on earth, at all times, as an inspirational and attractional force of love to draw our imaginations and devotion toward wisdom and truth and peace. God is, in this sense, Almighty – present everywhere for healing and wisdom and love.
But we have a part to play as well. We have the choice to stream toward God or not, to listen to God’s wisdom or not. We have the choice to beat our swords into ploughshares or not, to be people of peace or of violence.
And more of us doing that more of the time will make a big difference in how much prosperity and peace and flourishing we all can experience.
Alright, this is super big picture. As a pastor, I’m trying to keep teaching about God and how God’s power and love work in life, and I’ll keep doing that.
But what does all this mean for us as we follow impeachment inquiries and suffer through a more than year-long election season? Beyond lowering our expectations for every politician and political program, how can faith in the God the prophets dream about help us toward a more spiritually healthy engagement in politics?
I’ve got two thoughts, real quick.
Engage in politics with clear eyes and a full heart. And to
Be steadfast in hope and ruthless with systems, but generous with people.
Here’s what I mean.
Engage in politics with clear eyes and a full heart.
Our politicians don’t have the kind of powers we wish they did, or fear they do. And yet, they (like us) are people who are either streaming toward and responding to the wisdom of God or not. They are people who are becoming people of peace and flourishing, and promoting God’s peace and flourishing, or not.
And because of the power we’ve given them, because of the loudness of their voices and the leverage they have, there are stakes to this. So rather than hide from politics in the cocoons of our families or faith, rather than burrow down behind our privilege, I’d invite us to engage – but just to engage with clear eyes and a full heart.
Open your eyes. Be careful and wise. Don’t act like one person or party is always right. Don’t align yourself with a permanent friend or align yourself against a permanent enemy. One of the shameful aspects of American politics these past forty years is how fully Christians, for instance, or at least certain types of Christians have totally aligned their interests with the power of a single political party. It’s turned out really good for that party, but pretty awful for Christian witness.
Which is the way things go when people pursue power rather than clear-eyed, full-hearted vision for the wisdom, peace, and flourishing of us all. My point isn’t to tell you to be Republican or Democrat or neither one. I have my opinions of what I want in our country, but that’s besides the point here.
My point is to try to humbly learn from Jesus. Stream toward God. Never assume you’ve landed on truth or wisdom. Keep learning. Ask God to lead you toward more wisdom and more understanding of how to pursue peace and flourishing in your times, and then engage in politics and everything else as that leads you.
Don’t sell your permanent loyalty to anyone or anything but God. And pursue God’s greater good as that leads you.
And as you engage in public life, be steadfast in hope and ruthless with systems, but generous with people.
Public life matters. Our collective peace or violence matters. Safeguards to people’s security, prosperity, and flourishing matters – especially for people that most lack those safeguards right now. Wisdom and justice as they work out in public life matter.
So keep your hope up, and where you encounter systems that stand against your hopes in God, ruthlessly oppose them. Use your money and vote and voice to pursue collective peace and flourishing. That’s what our health care justice team is trying to do – to pursue quality health care access and fair costs for all people in our city. Way to go, team!
But remember, just like the politicians, you too are dust. You’re human and not God. You are flesh and not spirit. You might not be right all the time. You probably aren’t. And you just might still have a few things to learn.
So try to be generous with people that think and vote differently than you. Try to practice Jesus’ call to be more critical of yourself than others. Try to practice Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies and pray for those that oppose you.
We are not a unanimous country when it comes to our understandings of God or truth or politics or anything else. For most of us, that’s true of our families and workplaces as well, if not of our friends. That does not mean we’re all right. And that does not mean that we all have to be nice and accommodating all the time. Being a person of peace doesn’t just mean being silent or sweet when someone disagrees with you.
But it does mean that we can afford the dignity of respect to others – not to all their ideas, but to their voice and their personhood. And it does mean that we can seek the good in others, to seek our common humanity, even when we’re opposed.
If you find yourself angry sometimes as we’re on the brink of political chaos, you’re probably just alive. That’s not a bad thing. But if you find that you’re the meanest, most judgy person in the room, or anything like that, I’d ask you to consider whether Jesus has a call to wisdom and peace for you, and not just your adversary.
I want to pray for us during these times, pray power and blessing in this regard, but first let me recap:
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Lower your expectations for powerful people.
Engage in politics with clear eyes and a full heart.
Be steadfast in hope and ruthless with systems, but generous with people.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
When you root for or against politicians, remember they are only dust. God renews and loves and advances the good through any and many people and forces that cooperate with God’s vision.