Sermon: A Tale of Two Realms


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

That’s how Charles Dickens begins his literary masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, set during the 18th century French Revolution; but it could just as easily be an observation made about America during the 21st century presidential election. In his novel, Dickens paints a vivid picture of two worlds violently colliding – the French aristocracy and France’s peasant caste – and the atrocities they commit toward one another over the course of the revolution.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” depending on who you were, what your station in life was, and what your perception of the world happened to be.

Over the past several months we’ve been hearing two very different pictures being painted of both our nation and the world by two very dissimilar presidential candidates. We’ve watched as a host of political surrogates and spin artists and media pundits lined up on one side or the other to hurl their own rhetorical atrocities toward each other; rhetoric which has often threatened to turn to more overt forms of violence toward their opponent and their minions.

Meanwhile, as all this has unfolded, millions of ordinary, patriotic Americans are simply trying to make some sense of it all, much less fulfill their civic responsibility by voting their conscience.

How does one `vote one’s conscience’ when faced with the choice of one of two candidates, each with reportedly the highest `unfavorability’ rating in our nation’s political history?

And for the Christian American, that imperative is even more pronounced, because – along with trying to determine how we are now to view the reality of the world – as either a republican or a democrat, as a staunch conservative or devoted liberal (without any definitive guidance of consensus from either side) – we also have the added challenge of making a choice within the overall context of our faith understandings and our own sense of Christian ethics.

In other words, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are convicted to cast our vote according to our distinctively `Christian conscience’.

Whatever that happens to mean to each of us.

That civic exercise and religious interpretation are both our right and our privilege as citizens of this great nation and as the spirit-led people of God.

The Constitution of the United States makes a provision for the separation of church and state; but it’s important to recognize, I think, that that is a convention that was created out of an emerging political system, some 240 years ago; it does not represent or come from any religious perspective or heritage.

Certainly that was not the case, historically, with the people Israel, as you thumb through the pages of Scripture. The king became the king as he was anointed by the resident prophet at the time. The law of the land was based upon God’s law. Governance was irrevocably interwoven with the people’s religion.

But while we’re on the subject, let’s face it, virtually no contemporary political campaign runs its course in this country without its candidate, at some point or another, invoking the name of God – for good or for ill.

And the American people, in turn, still seek to – in some respect – anoint their candidates for higher office.

I would argue that, while the institutions of church and state are upheld as separate, religion and politics are fundamentally inseparable in this country. The question, therefore, becomes not so much a matter of whether or not there is separation between our faith and our nationality. The question – or the problem – comes when the mergence is between bad religion and bad politics; when it becomes an unholy alliance that disheartens our ethical patriotism and distorts our perception of national idealism.

Religion and politics are, indeed, inseparable in America. But they are not equate-able. They must each maintain their distinct identities if they are to work together to serve the greater good.

The late William Sloane Coffin makes the distinction for us: “I think we can say that democracy is a form of government that demands more virtue of its citizens than any other form of government, but I do not think we can say that democracy guarantees that the virtue will be exercised. So let us term freedom of choice less a virtue than a necessity, a precondition to real freedom, which is the ability to make choices that are generous, loving, and wise. Our wills are not free when they will what is bigoted, narrow, ungenerous. Our wills are only free when they can will the will of a loving God. “Thy will be done on earth”” (Creedo).

And in a democracy such ours, just as in a church such as ours, God’s will is continually – and appropriately – a matter for ongoing debate.

But, “If the American people are worth they salt I think they’re worth, they will never be politically united, for as Barbara Tuchman recently wrote, “A nation in consensus is a nation ready for the grave.”

“Love of country, like love of parents, is never to be equated with blind obedience, as Jesus himself in both cases so poignantly demonstrated” (ibid. WSC)

In his life and ministry, Jesus became a national tipping point regarding the relationship between religion and politics. His cultural critique quickly became the impetus for an unholy alliance between the religious and political leaders of that time. Jesus challenged the system the people were living in, and being oppressed by. For the people, Jesus was a political liberator. He sanctified doubt in the hearts and minds of the people. And, therefore, those in power perceived him as direct threat.

However, “When there’s doubt,” said William Sloane Coffin, “there’s more considered faith. Likewise, when citizens doubt, patriotism becomes more informed. For Christians to render everything to Caesar – their minds, their consciences – is to become evangelical nationalists. That’s not a distortion of the gospel; that’s desertion. It’s wonderful to love one’s country, but faith is for God. National unity too is wonderful – but not in cruelty and folly.”

“There are three kinds of patriots,” Coffin said, “two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lovers quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s Lover’s quarrel with all the world.” (ibid.)

I’ve heard so many disheartening reports recently of Americans whose patriotism has been so polluted by the political atmosphere that they have decided simply not to vote at all; or are going to write in a name not on the ballot.

I believe that a wasted vote is a tragedy; I believe it undermines and erodes the foundations of democracy. It is “to sin by silence,” as Abraham Lincoln said, which “makes cowards of human beings.”

We are given a conscience by our God, we are given a vote by virtue of this great nation, and we are given a choice by lawful democratic process. And it is our responsibility – both civic and ethical – to make a viable choice. Even if we struggle with the character of that choice. Even if we feel that our vote represents less of an endorsement of one candidate and more of a protest against the other.

We have to be willing to filter out the contamination of political propaganda – perhaps even `holding our nose’ as many have said – in order to fulfill our civic duty of voting for one of the two (or three, or four) candidates on the ballot.

Rev. Walter Taylor, born one of fourteen children in impoverished Mississippi, became a civil rights leader, was ordained a United Methodist Pastor, and eventually became the first black Mayor of Englewood, New Jersey. Wrote Walter Taylor, “Politics determine the kind of world you will be born in, the kind of education, health care and job you eventually get, how you will spend your old age and even how you die. The church must address itself to, and be involved in, anything that affects life as greatly as this.”

So, while the war of political infighting wages on around us, we focus on fighting the good fight: we make our concerns and issues known; we campaign, we caucus, we lobby, we argue, we debate. We pray. And then we vote.

That’s what it means to be American.

And, I would proclaim that we vote for the candidate who we believe somehow, if hope against hope, will move us just a little closer to God’s will being done on this earth.

That’s what it means to be Christian.

In the final pages of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens asserts his belief in the possibility of resurrection and transformation, both on a personal and societal level. By delivering himself to the guillotine, Dickens’ main protagonist, Sydney Carton secures a new, peaceful life for his friends. In the same way his sacrifice serves as another step in transforming France into a beautiful, renewed republic. In the end, Carton becomes a Christ-like figure in Dicken’s story.

The Sadducees, however, did not believe in resurrection and certainly did not long for transformation. They devised their own reality in this world because they believed that this was the only world that would ever be. They were high-powered priests who had learned to compromise with the governors, powerbrokers and financiers. They were all about maintaining the status quo, because doing so preserved their own power. They controlled the people by imposing upon them the iota of the law, because it served their own purposes.

And they sensed, as Jesus no doubt intuited, that this resurrection he was talking about was a dangerous business. Because Jesus wasn’t just talking about a dead person being resuscitated. He was proclaiming God’s power for life that moves into all of our [worldly] arrangements and institutions, and shatters all those [all too human] categories by which we strive to manage, control, and administer.

“Jesus speaks about God’s will for new life working where we thought our tired deathliness would prevail,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.

`God’s Kingdom is beyond your imagination,’ Jesus, in essence, told them. Because, in that realm women will no longer be the property of men to be taken care of. There will be no sociopolitical strata by which people will be controlled, exploited and marginalized.

“He is the power of life in the midst of a world bent on death.” (WB)

“For God is not God of the dead, but of the living; in God all will have life.”

 

So, if you are discouraged or fearful because of the often contentious debate now occurring in our country, take heart; for the nation is larger than one candidate, or one election. And the sanctity of free will cannot be bamboozled by disingenuous political operatives. Do not allow the doomsday pundits or the deleterious campaign rhetoric leave you disillusioned, disempowered and disenfranchised. You have a voice and a vote and a God-given conscience.

Exercise them!

And have faith that you too can play your part in transforming this world to more closely reflect and express God’s will, through the power of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ. Amen.