SCRIPTURE – Psalm 146 – Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
2 I will praise the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.
How to Vote
Nov. 4, 2012
Well, this morning I’m breaking one of my own rules about preaching. A wise man and mentor of mine named Nelson Irving told me, “There are two things you never talk about in church: politics and religion.” And this morning, we’ll be talking about both. Just in case it doesn’t go well, I want to tell you what an honor it has been serving as your pastor and please just fire me quickly and get it over with. A pastor once asked the chair of the Elders, “Will you still love me if I preach a political sermon?” The Elders chair responded, “Yes, we’ll still love you, but we’ll miss you.”
I recognize this is treading on some dangerous ground. As I heard one congregation member say this week, “I already know how to vote, so I guess I don’t have to come on Sunday!” A few notable examples aside, most pastors and churches make it their business NOT to be political, sticking to the things of God’s realm and leaving the politics to the experts. That assumes, of course, that politics are outside of God’s realm. At this point, we’ve all seen enough commercials and heard enough speeches that we’re OK with that assumption, but in our hearts we know it’s not true. It’s all a part of God’s realm and our faith should inform every corner of our lives, including our politics, so we can’t get away with ignoring it.
The word “politics” has taken on a decidedly negative meaning in our culture today, but the root word “polis” simply means “pertaining to a city.” Politics is the way in which humans organize themselves into a cohesive social unit. One writer said, “There is a process by which a group of people decides how to organize themselves, how to distribute power and resources, how to make decisions, how to live together harmoniously. That process is called ‘politics’.”
Wait! How to live together harmoniously? Did this writer even watch the debates? “Politics” and “harmony” have become polar opposites of each other in our modern culture. It seems as if the topic of politics has become a wedge, dividing people into different ideological camps. Politics turns neighbors into red-faced enemies. It divides towns and families and churches. It makes otherwise decent people say terrible things about others who have different opinions. It makes people demonize the candidate of the opposing party. It makes people un-friend each other on Facebook. And, I believe, politics presents a real challenge for us as we try to be Christians first in this world. After all, how do live out the commandment to love your neighbor when they have that other candidate’s sign in their yard?
So the question we face as Christians is, “How to vote?” I’m not talking about pulling levers or making sure you completely punch your chads and darken your circles. Notice, the question is not “Who do we vote for?” That’s not my business to tell you the answer to that question. As Disciples of Christ, we believe everyone is able to figure out for themselves who to vote for, and we can still ride our elephants and donkeys right up to the communion table and share a meal together in Jesus’ name. No, the question before us is, “How do I vote?” What I mean is, “In what spirit should we approach this civic responsibility?”
As we should always do when faced with social, moral, or ethical conundrums, we turn to scripture, not for black-and-white answers, but for guidance. Our psalm today says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God.” I can think of a lot of words to describe the climate of our country right now, but “happy” doesn’t immediately come to mind. In fact very few descriptors come to mind that I would want used to describe me. So what is the relationship between our faith and our politics? Is it impossible for a person to be Christian and political? Of course not! In fact, I believe, in order to be authentic in our beliefs we must be both as we strive to live out our faith and be a witness. Our government separates church and state, and rightfully so. But we can’t make that distinction in our hearts, because everything we do or so should be informed by our faith.
Then how do we represent our faith in the public square? How do we witness to God’s goodness as we live out our political passion? When you get right down to it, it’s a question of integrity, and there are some pretty deep potholes here that I may be about to step in. It’s quite telling when one of the first people on the TV screen after a debate is a fact-checker who’s going to tell us which candidate told the most lies. And then our fact-checkers get fact-checked! TV ads paint candidates in the most negative of lights. We cheer when the opposition stumbles, making caricatures out of failed attempts to do good or even innocent slips of the tongue. I believe we can get so zealous in our desire for victory, we can become so passionate in support of our candidate, that we succumb to the some of the very evils we as Christians would otherwise deplore. As W.C. Fields said, “I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.” There’s a big difference between being saying, “I’m for my candidate” and “I’m against that other candidate.”
Seriously, have we completely lost the ability for civil discourse? Is it still possible to disagree with someone on a political issue without resorting to character assassinations and conspiracy theories? People are watching and listening to us, so I hope we are faithfully representing God and bringing God glory by how we go about disagreeing with each other or commenting on the candidates. We deplore the pervasiveness of negative advertising, but they must be working or else we wouldn’t be seeing them. Integrity.
I wonder what it would be like to approach our right to vote the same way we approach reading the Bible. The ideal we should strive for is to not read the Bible at a surface level or simply rely on someone else to tell us what it says. Instead, we’re called to spend time investigating, researching, digging for the truth that God has for us. It’s hard work. It would be a lot easier just to co-opt someone else’s beliefs, but I believe God gave us brains to be used. Through our study of scripture we are inspired to act in response to what we’ve learned.
How does that look when applied to our vote? We don’t learn about the candidates and issues at surface level or simply rely on someone else to tell us what to do. Instead, we’re called to spend time investigating, researching, digging for the truth in the candidates’ messages. It’s hard work. It would be a lot easier just to co-opt someone else’s beliefs about a candidate, but I believe God gave us brains to be used. Through our investment in the voting process we are inspired to act on what we’ve learned.
I can already hear the objections forming in your head. “The truth! How in the world are we supposed to get to THAT?” For me, it starts by going back to scriptures like Psalm 146. If we can’t fully trust what our candidates tell us, if we aren’t quite sure of the proper criteria to use when evaluating our choices, it might be helpful to ask, “What does God have to say about all this?” Can scripture give us some illumination on how to vote? “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers (interestingly, some translations say, “the Lord watches over foreigners”), he upholds the orphan and the widow.” Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”As we employ our faith to help us make wise choices at the polls, maybe that’s a place to start, to strive to be on God’s side.
I posed the question on Facebook about what a sermon on voting should and shouldn’t say and got some very interesting responses. Some folks told me to stay away altogether, that no good could come of this. After all, they reasoned, Jesus wasn’t political so why should we be? But I would argue Jesus was very political, engaging the ruling powers, both religious and Roman. He took on the religious political parties like the Pharisees and the Sadducees in order to expose them for their hypocrisy. He did this, not by challenging them to a debate, but by touching lepers, eating with tax collectors, hanging with sinful people, and refusing to bow to their power. I believe trying to be Christian and not be political is not faithful to who Jesus was or calls us to be. We are called to be involved in this world in every aspect in order to bring about God’s kingdom.
And what does that kingdom look like? One of my Facebook respondents said this: “I would hope a sermon on voting would say, “Don’t vote for the person who will most help you; vote for the person who will most help everyone’.” Now, the joy of this whole process is that we all have some widely varying opinions about which candidates can be the most help. That’s the beauty of living in a free country. But I think that’s a great place to start, because it mirrors for me what God’s kingdom looks like: a place where everyone belongs, everyone is welcomed, and no one lacks for what they need. Is that possible here on earth? Probably not. So does that mean we should not strive for it with our time, our money, our vote?
“Do not put your trust in princes.” This presidential race has been very interesting. Both candidates are compelling, have interesting personal histories, have worked hard to articulate their very different ideas of what’s right for this country. This is what politics is all about. But let’s not forget that the God who made heaven and earth and Romney and Obama is the Lord God, the one who will reign, not for four years, not for eight years, but forever. On Tuesday, let’s vote for the people we believe will do the best job of leading our country and then let’s remember that our God calls us in the midst of our diversity and differing opinions to be one body of Christ. And then on Wednesday, let’s take all the passion and fervor and energy that we’ve been putting into either rooting for someone, rooting against someone, or complaining about the whole process in general, and put it to use in serving the kingdom of God.