Friday, June 3, 2016

Pentecost 2--Politics, Power, and God.

When I met with a group of friends this past week, they asked what I was going to preach about and I responded, "Politics, Power and God."  My friends rolled their eyes--sure that I was going to get myself in trouble.  But I persist.  Because I think that this is what the Gospel is about today and to ignore politics is to miss the message of the Gospel.

In this gospel Jesus meets an extraordinary Centurion.  He is the military leader.  The Roman Emperor has given him power.  And he uses that power to uphold the Roman state and expand the Empire. The expansion of the Empire is about conquering land.    At this time, we see Jesus leading an uprising of the Jews, challenging the Roman authorities, the oppressors.  But he is not challenging the military with his own military forces, instead he is preaching, teaching and healing about an authority that comes from God, an authority stronger than the Empire.

As we listen to this story we can begin to see the complexity of the relationships—Centurion has his job, keeping the peace in Capernaum.  Keeping down the uprising and using military power on behalf of the Emperor.  But he has also used his power to build a temple and he has developed good relationships with the Jewish elders.  The Jewish elders believe that the Centurion respects and loves them, even though he is charged with maintaining order over the people.  We don’t know whether the Centurion really respected the Jewish elders, or whether he was just doing his job—paying for a temple because he thought it would help him maintain control.

The Centurion must have known that Jesus is part of the dissident group.  Jesus is challenging the Roman authorities, speaking out against oppression, lifting up the peasants.  But remember Jesus the revolutionary, is not fighting power with military might.  He is honoring “Cesar”, at the same time as he is proclaiming a new way in which the least will be first. 

So we see two men—the centurion and Jesus, who politically are enemies.   But there is some level of mutual respect.  Jesus respects the government, even though he is fighting its oppression.  The centurion is keeping the peasant Jews under Roman (gentile) control, but he is also building them a temple. 

And in this context we have the story of the healing of the slave.  These political enemies, meet through intermediaries.  The centurion sends out his allies, the Jewish elders to call on Jesus.  As Jesus approaches, the centurion sends friends to stop him, saying don’t come into my house (because he knew it was against the religious laws for Jesus to enter a Gentile’s house).   But the message from the centurion is a recognition of Jesus’ power.  The centurion points out that they are both working under authority.  The centurion recognizes that Jesus is working under God’s authority. 

And Jesus turns to his followers and says,  “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  Jesus sees in his political enemy and acknowledgement of God’s true authority.    In this recognition of God’s authority, the slave is healed.  As a result of faith, the political differences between the two men take a back seat to the healing power of God. 

Jesus recognizes that this centurion is an extraordinary person.  Even though the centurion is a military leader and an enemy in his role, he is also a person of faith who respects the people he rules and recognizes the authority of God. 

Jesus’ healing comes to the slave in the recognition of this complexity.  The connection between the men, and the healing comes through shared faith God, even though in political society, the men are enemies.

There are at least two political interpretations of this story.  On one hand, we could read this as a story about personal faith.  We could understand the Gospel as telling us that even though we may remain enemies on the political level, we can love one another at the personal level. 

But the other way of reading it is to see that God’s healing is for all.  We can see that God’s authority, God’s love, God’s healing power overrides the petty political power that the centurion represents. 

There is a danger in the first reading—that danger is that we could imagine ourselves justified in hating our enemy as a group, while we love an individual who is a member of that group.  And maybe we could say, that our war against “those other people” is right as long as we make exceptions for the individuals whom we love.  We could decide that we must build up our military power, or our political power to fight our enemies at the same time as we send aid to those places where poor people are being oppressed.  But Jesus did not arm his followers and tell them to rise up against the military arm of Rome.  He instead offered healing to everyone, the tax collectors and the slaves, to the centurion, to the Jewish elders (who could be seen as collaborators with the imperial authorities) and to his followers.

But if we take the second reading, then we can see that Jesus is preaching a new way.  Jesus is against oppression.  He is undermining the political power of the Emperor, not by fighting back with military arms.  He is undermining the unfair political oppression of the Emperor by showing a different power—the power of God to heal all.
This second reading is highlighted by the Epistle today.  Paul is speaking to the Galatians.  The critical issue among the Galatians is a fight about whether Christians must follow Mosaic law.   Paul is preaching against a gospel that draws distinctions between different groups and offers salvation only for a chosen few.  He is pointing out that the Way of Christ is for all believers, not just those who subscribe to a certain set of practices. 

We hear this message also in our reading from Kings—Solomon highlighting the faith of the foreigner and God’s saving grace coming to the one who is not part of that society.

So what does this mean for us today?  In the US, we are in the midst of political turmoil.  Candidates for the Presidency are attacking one another.  Our society, our communities are divided.  We have powerful people who make the rules in government.   We have immigrants and workers who are struggling to make ends meet.  We have local policies that protect the vulnerable, and we have systems that  leave some with poor education, inferior housing, low paying jobs.  We have insurgent groups in the Middle East who are fighting a war of terror on the Western powers.  We have the rise of militant Islamists in the US.  We have politicians who would take away the rights of all Muslims to fight this tide.

How do we engage our faith in the midst of this political scene?  Where do we stand?  How do we preach and how do we become part of the healing that is needed?

Our readings today point us to healing work that does not ignore the political differences, but acknowledges a power that is greater than any human power.  We come together as a community—even with those we hate politically to heal the least among us.  When the political differences push us to exclude some from our dialogue to cut out the foreigner or rail against the powerful.  When we might look at soldiers from another place or another empire as monsters, we are reminded by Jesus’ example, that our authority comes from a higher place.  Instead of engaging in military conflict, we work to heal, work to care for the slaves, and honor the faith of our enemies. 
I think that applying this Scripture to our political situation is difficult, because in practical terms, we can quickly be drawn into the hatred of those others—the militant Islamists, the presidential candidates who use inflammatory rhetoric, the local leaders who argue that we have scarce resources that must be used to incentivize good behavior of a few and punish those who are “takers” in our society.

But rather than being drawn into these debates, we have an obligation to point to a radically different way.  There is God’s way which honors every human and seeks healing for all people.  Our society is complex, but Jesus found a way to honor his followers, to acknowledge the military power, to work with the Jewish elders, to hear the needs of the poor slave.    Following Jesus, we must listen for the voices who are speaking on behalf of the poorest.  We must recognize that the powerful can be part of the solution, and we must join together—across the lines that separate us, just as Jesus crossed the line to work with the Gentile Centurion. 

Let our prayer be that we might see and hear God’s way in the midst of our differences, seeking to be a healing force even for people we do not know and do not touch.  By coming together and speaking of God’s power and love, we undermine oppressive human power structures and ultimately God’s Way will prevail—creating a Kingdom that will include the powerful, the foreigner, the Christian, the Jew, non-believer, those who conspire with authority and those who have no power at all. 

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