"Religion and politics don't mix."
Luke wouldn't say that, and neither would Matthew, Mark or John, or the Hebrew prophets from Moses to Malachi and Amos to Zechariah. The recurring message of the voices in the bible indicates that religion and politics do indeed mix. Of course they do.
Next Sunday's parable from Luke's gospel (Luke 14) is one such message. Here's Jesus at a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. He has already challenged the rule about healing on the Sabbath; shock waves are still swirling around the table. And now, with this parable about who gets invited to the dinner table, he gets political. Political, because table fellowship was the heart of politics. The rules for sharing a meal--who would be invited, who should sit where, what could be served, how it should be prepared, who should serve it-- all of this was of keen importance because table fellowship was a microcosm of the social system, the political order of first-century Palestine.
Jesus talks about a new kind of order, a new kind of kingdom where the tables are turned, the hierarchies are upended, and every person, slave or free, Jew or Roman, peasant or king, woman or man, everyone is welcome, especially the ones at the edges. This new kingdom of God doesn't look anything like the domination system imposed by Rome and enforced by the temple. The politics of Rome are not the politics of Jesus.
Jesus is saying, in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets, that politics matters. He is saying that politics, that is, the way human communities are organized, matters, because God is a God of justice, a God of compassion.
This compassion is not a matter of warm, cozy, loving feelings. The new way announced by Jesus, at that dinner party and in so many other encounters, was not something limited to personal, individual moral behavior. It was not something reserved for a future afterlife, a far off blissful heaven. It was to be incorporated into the social and political structures of the day, here and now, beginning with the familiar structure of the dinner table. That's why the way of Jesus has been termed "the politics of compassion," a term was first coined by Marcus Borg back in 1994 in his landmark book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
The politics of compassion says that the least likely, the poor, the marginalized, the ones who don't count, the ones who struggle to keep body and soul together, these ones are the first ones to be welcomed in the door of the kingdom. In the face of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, Jesus was preaching revolution.
But we in the church have kept this revolution pretty quiet. Since the beginning of the 4th century, when Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the church hasn't paid too much attention to this part of our roots. More often than not, we have interpreted Jesus' parables as describing some kind of future day when God's way would reign, some better day, by and by, when current evil would pass away, or be swept away with an end-of-time clash of cymbals. The spiritual life was private, personal, removed from political life, unless of course the church was supporting the reigning king or queen or president or parliament. It has been rare, and never popular, for the church to question the politics of the day. As the Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camera once said "When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist."
It's hard to reconcile separation of the spiritual from the political with the life and ministry of Jesus, and the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and their call for justice for the poor. Our tradition, so clearly illustrated in the stories of the bible, tells us that we are to care about the fabric of our common life, not just the comfort of our private lives. We are not about the creation of a utopia, but we are about participation in the common good. And that's politics. If politics was important to Jesus, politics is important to the followers of Jesus, to me as a Christian and a pastor.
This week we observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and hear again the call to justice from that young preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. On that day in 1963, Dr. King was preaching revolution, just like Jesus preached revolution. On that day in 1963, the church stood up for justice.
Today, we need to stand up again. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted, Stand Your Ground laws endanger the lives of our children, our Congress is held hostage by the gun lobby, our Prison Industrial Complex shreds the fabric of countless lives, wealth disparity grows unchecked--the list goes on and on.
It's time to preach revolution--in other words, it's time to embrace the heart of Christianity, the core of Jesus' life and teaching, and preach the politics of compassion.
Echoes from the Edge
By Richard Burden, 2012-13 Beatitudes Fellow - August 26th, 2013
Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlife by David Eagleman
"Funny, odd, disturbing, and provocative these vignettes by a practicing neuroscientist become windows into our own fears of, and desires and longings for, the ultimate questions."
Wise Blood & The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
"O'Connor should be required reading for any pastor, and especially for those living and working in the American south. Her grotesque portraits of grace working through even the darkest characters are often challenging, funny, and always beautiful."
Richard Burden is priest in charge of The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky
Finally, the Poet
By William Stafford - August 26th, 2013
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life---
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?