Practicing Christians – Sermon 9/3/17

By: Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy

Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28

Remember the vintage GOT MILK advertisements? The question became a popular meme launching a horde of copycats. GOT BEER? GOT TACOS? Even GOT CORN? Well, I’m twenty years late to this party, and I’m a slow learner, but I want to know GOT POLITICS?

We live in a country with political options like liberalism, conservativism, and socialism – all believing in progress and politics as a means of forming the future. As Will Campbell put it, “I watch the political process pretty much as I watch baseball. I have a favorite team, but I know that ultimately it makes no difference who wins. I gave up on politics offering any hope for the world’s problems a long time ago. It’s an illusion. Sometimes good comedy.”

I have been sent to spread the word: Jesus “got” politics. There’s a book that changed my life: The Politics of Jesus by Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder. So let me show you the radical, peaceful, truthful, and just politics of Jesus – a tattered purple robe, a handful of nails, a crown of thorns, a cross, a bowl of vinegar, blood, water, darkness, God-forsakenness, and death. That’s the politics of Jesus.

Perhaps you are stunned that a Baptist preacher would proclaim a politics of Jesus, but as Baptists you should know better. After all, because I am a Baptist, I am a Bible reader. I am immersed in Scripture from childhood. So my brain is filled with scripture and it was from the Bible that I learned that Jesus has a politics and it’s embodied in his cross and that cross was there from the beginning. “There’s always been a cross in the heart of God. “A sword shall pierce your heart also.” The cross means more than the blood of Jesus for eternal salvation and going for heaven. The cross is material practices of the people of Jesus and the gospels tell us the meaning of the cross from the beginning. The cross is the symbol of the politics of Jesus.

Here’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, singing her radical, cross-filled song:

“He has shown strength with his arm He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich he has sent away empty.”

Here’s Jesus laying out his political platform. “He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives; and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty the oppressed.” You know his message was radical, because when Jesus preached his first sermon at his home town synagogue, the congregation was enraged and tried to kill him. “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Gaining the whole world – that’s fake politics. Losing life for the sake of Jesus – that’s real politics. “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The politics of Jesus is not filled with promises of jobs, wealth, safety, and security. The politics of Jesus is about suffering, sacrificial love for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.

But I also got more than Bible training in my Southern Baptist home. I had a “good mama” who taught me to love reading. She put books in my hand and taught me to walk in the Garden of Literature unafraid. My first 17 years I never went beyond Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, but in my reading I went everywhere. Through reading, this North Louisiana country boy met the Rochester, New York American Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch who gave us the “social gospel.” I met Harry Emerson Fosdick, my earliest preacher hero, Riverside Baptist Church in Manhattan. Through reading and television, I met a Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught me to take on violence with non-violence. And, of course, I discovered Yoder the Mennonite scholar, which means he was an Anabaptist, a cousin of Baptists. Baptists the whole lot! Jesus got Baptist politics!

Of all things, Jesus says, [God] “has anointed me to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” “Acceptable year of the Lord” is Jewish for Jubilee. It is one of those practices commanded by God that the people never enacted. We do this all the time. The Bible clearly tells us to forgive one another but our churches are full of unforgiveness. The Bible clearly tells us to tithe, but tithers are on the endangered species list and we get mad when the preacher has to beg us to give money in order to make the budget.

Just like investment banks deemed “too big to fail,” Jubilee is considered “too big and too radical” to try. Do you know what Jubilee was? Well, according to the Hebrew Bible, every 50th year there was to be a national Jubilee, a national day of returning all the stuff to everyone. It was National Debt Forgiveness Day. Imagine Wells Fargo trying to enact this piece of biblical politics.

Imagine that the House and Senate established the National Day of Jubilee for October 1, 2017. Imagine that President Trump signed it into law. On that day all the mortgages of all the homeowners would be paid off. All financial loans and debts would be forgiven. The 60 billion dollars of credit card debt would be erased. How would the New York Stock Exchange react? What would the banks think about Jubilee? What if Trump Tower became a tepee for Chief What Do You Think Of Me Now? And what about the twenty bucks you have owed your sister for forty-five years?

Jesus tells us to enact Jubilee principles. Did you know that we pray for Jubilee every Sunday? “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Oops, we changed that to forgive us our sins, because we don’t want Jesus messing with our money. The word translated debt is an economics textbook word – a monetary debt. Jubilee was economic repentance for all the lying, stealing, and cheating of the previous 50 years, a paying back of all the money made by unscrupulous bottom-feeding bottom liners. The hard-liners want to take us to war. The bottom-liners want to take our money in the name of profits. And they fill the halls of Congress like giant cockroaches seeking whom they may devour.

But not Jesus. The politics of Jesus has a different economic policy. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “Sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor” (Luke 12:33). Surely, not us Lord. Jesus praised the widow who “threw into the offering her entire living.” After Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold,” what does Jesus say? And Jesus said unto him, “This day is salvation come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9). Giving money is clearly related to being saved. I think Wells Fargo needs to publicly repent, make the Zacchaeus pledge, and then go to jail, directly to jail without passing GO and without collecting $200. Thieves, white-collar, corporate, thieves, need to be in prison. All those folks chanting “Lock her up,” should turn their attention to the thieves populating Wall Street, big banks, and corporations with no sense of community loyalty, and no sense of caring about the people just the profits.

The radical politics of Jesus turns out to be the radical ordinary: actual, ordinary practices. Rowan Williams says, “We cannot hear the gospel except by tending to the ordinary.” (Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettle Our Judgment. The only politics that make sense is to “make an art of ordinary living with these normal practices:

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;* do not claim to be wiser than you are.

These are the material practices of the people of Jesus. This is our daily liturgical work, especially in our disagreements. It’s in times of disagreement that we learn the depth of our faith. A church member once said to me, “I’m a good Christian, but don’t make me mad.” There’s this verse in Galatians that applies to American Christians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;* only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,* but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:13-15).

In Terry Kay’s novel, The Year the Lights Came On, A Georgia community is divided over the guilt or innocence of Freeman, a local teenager, who has been accused of stealing from his employer. Class divisions clash as the poor, working-class laborers support Freeman’s innocence while the owners and management decry his guilt. The conflict spills over into the church, where it festers beneath the veneer of religious respectability and becomes all the more infected because no one addresses it. The pastor looks out from his pulpit and sees those who support Freeman on the right and those who believe in his guilt on the left. This wise pastor preaches the gospel. He uses Scripture and analogy to help the congregation see their conflict in the light of God’s word and reminds them of their ethical responsibility for each other.

He retells the story of Cain and Abel and tells a parable of brothers and forgiveness, and he challenges each member to read the church motto hanging over the piano: “I am only one, I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And what I can do, by the grace of God, I ought to do.”

In this story the Holy Spirit quickly brings about reconciliation. The members move toward one another in forgiveness. There are mumbled apologies for misbehavior.

“Preacher’s right. Fightin’ among ourselves is wrong, bad wrong.”

“What I said last week, well I didn’t mean nothing.’”

“This is too good a community to be tore apart by arguing’.”